Why a Russian 'Reset' Won't Work

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The Obama administration has famously sought to “reset” relations with Russia. This move may be well-intentioned, but it is ultimately unlikely to succeed, because it fails to take the nature of the regime in the Kremlin into account.

The Obama administration has been much credited for the realist nature of its foreign policy. But the realist understanding of international relations is based on certain assumptions, most crucially that leaders are rational actors, making decisions on the basis of a cool calculation of national interests. If these calculations are understood and addressed, it follows that it is possible to work with Russia’s leaders, to seek and perhaps even find common ground.

Thus we assume that Russia has no interest in a nuclear-armed Iran, or in a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. Since we assume that these outcomes would threaten Russia, we conclude that Russia should be willing to cooperate with America - if only it is approached rightly.

But the "rationality" that informs Russia's actions, while real, is based on entirely different assumptions than those ascribed to it by enthusiasts of the "reset" doctrine.

As Iran is concerned, pundits often say the U.S. "needs" Russia on Iran. But Moscow has been building an alliance with Tehran for a decade. It has actively helped Iran’s nuclear program by building the Bushehr reactor; it has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block sanctions on Iran; and it continues to supply Iran with advanced weaponry. The Kremlin even regularly denies the existence of an Iranian threat, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did in late March. If Russia would be concerned of Iranian nuclearization, why has it acted in an opposite manner for a decade?

In Afghanistan, Moscow has publicly offered the U.S. to cooperate, including on logistics to supply the operation. But it is beyond doubt that it was Russian pressure and promises of aid that prompted Kyrgyzstan’s government to expel the U.S. from its only airbase in Central Asia. If Russia wants to stabilize Afghanistan, why is it undermining the U.S. efforts to do so?

Similarly, following its invasion of Georgia last August, Moscow recognized the independence of the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Leaving aside the breach of international law involved, the decision was stunning given the precedent it established for Russia’s own numerous ethnic minorities. From Chechnya to Tatarstan, nationalists among Russia’s minorities now argue that the Kremlin’s decision provides for an excellent precedent for them to secede from Russia.

In all these cases, the Russian leadership has clearly been acting against its own long-term national interests – at least the way we construe these in the West. How can this be explained? Because the Russian regime has a different set of priorities, much more short-sighted in nature, and in which anti-Americanism holds a prominent place, and because for Putin and his associates, the regime’s interests trump national interests.

Russia has made Iran its main ally in the Middle East exactly because the Iranian theocracy is the major regional force undermining America’s position in the region. From Moscow’s perspective, the prospect of a nuclear and anti-American Iran keeps America bogged down, while also providing an avenue for lucrative arms contracts with the Iranian regime. That enriches defense industries, and benefits high-level members of the regime running them. Likewise, Moscow may not desire a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, but sees this as a much lesser danger to itself than a permanent American military and political presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Should America succeed in Afghanistan that would open up the former Soviet colonies in Central Asia, making them less dependent on Russia. As for Georgia, the imperative of denying Georgia NATO membership appears to trump the danger of causing a rise in separatism inside Russia itself.

All of this indicates the key role of anti-Americanism at the heart of the ‘Putinist” ideology. This is illustrated by the Kremlin’s harsh anti-American rhetoric at home and abroad.

The Kremlin leaders see the world almost exclusively in zero-sum terms: America’s loss is Moscow’s gain, and helps undermining the “unipolar world” and restoring “multipolarity.”

Just like the Obama administration, the Bush administration went about seeking to play a “win-win” game with Moscow, pointing out common interests and priorities. It found out the hard way the perils of playing a win-win game when faced with a zero-sum opponent. The Obama administration will surely learn the same lessons; let us hope that it will do so sooner than its predecessor did.

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