Why the GOP Candidates Should Talk about Russia

By Daniel Vajdic
January 18, 2012

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, war veterans and cadets watch the military parade in Red Square (Photo: REUTERS)

There’s a tendency to emphasize the obvious when critiquing President Obama’s foreign policy. Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons continues unchecked. The Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to finding a solution that would ensure Israel’s security and establish a functional, responsible Palestinian state. Meanwhile, a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq has unleashed sectarian tensions, perhaps bringing into question Iraq’s viability as a unified state, and creating the conditions for an expansion of Iranian influence.

But Obama’s Russia policy — the so-called “reset” — has gone largely unnoted. This is especially surprising given that the administration advertises the Russian reset as one of its principal foreign-policy triumphs. Most casual observers don’t seem to be aware that if the president were asked to rank his achievements in the realm of foreign relations, he would probably list an “improvement” in U.S.–Russia relations behind only Osama bin Laden’s death and perhaps the jumbled Libya operation.

Obama has boasted of a number of successes in the context of the reset. First among those is the New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, which caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms at 1,550 warheads and limits each side’s deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles. In Moscow, Obama negotiated an expansion of Russian supply routes to Afghanistan for nonlethal matériel. Moreover, since Obama announced the reset, Russia has agreed to an additional round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran and canceled a sale of its advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran.

However, most of the reset’s supposed achievements are much less substantive than Obama claims, in some cases simply don’t exist, and, taken as a whole, represent nothing more than a well-devised marketing ploy to mask a scarcity of foreign-policy triumphs elsewhere. Unless unilateral U.S. disarmament is the underlying objective, New START should not be seen as an accomplishment. Russia was already below the new ceilings in both strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles when the treaty came into force. The U.S. has had to reduce its stockpile as Russia increases its own.

Supply routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory — the northern portion of the Northern Distribution Network — have become increasingly important since Islamabad shut down transit corridors through Pakistan in late November. U.S. relations with Pakistan are arguably at a post-9/11 nadir.

Still, there are a few problems with the Russian option. First, Russia limits NATO to nonlethal equipment and only allows the alliance to ship supplies from the West to Afghanistan, not in the reverse direction. Second, the Kremlin may prove to be no less erratic than Pakistan. Moscow’s ambassador to NATO recently threatened to cut off Russian transit routes to Afghanistan unless the U.S. agrees to scale back its missile-defense plans in Europe. Finally, an expansion of the Russian route makes the U.S. even more reliant on the Kremlin, which may use its leverage to extract concessions in unrelated areas. In addition to missile defense, Russia’s demands could include reduced U.S. engagement with the countries of the former Soviet Union — Moscow’s “sphere of privileged interests” — and a diminution in U.S. criticism of what can mildly be called the Putin regime’s democratic shortcomings.

Moreover, to suggest that the Kremlin is cooperating over Afghanistan because of the reset is patently wrong. Perhaps more than any other country in the world save the U.S., Russia fears the return of the Taliban and the further diffusion of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, which threatens its southern periphery. In the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow assists the U.S. in Afghanistan because “it serves our security interests.”

On Iran, the reset has not fundamentally altered Russia’s approach. As evidence to the contrary, the administration most often points to the Kremlin’s support for a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions and its decision to scrap delivery of the S-300 air-defense system to Tehran. But none of this represents a real shift in policy. From 2006 to 2008, Russia backed three rounds of sanctions against Iran. Since the inception of the reset three years ago, however, Russia has supported only one set of multilateral sanctions.

In fact, Russia now opposes sanctions, claiming that the option has been “exhausted,” and its intransigence on the issue has only grown in recent months. The Kremlin condemned an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report in November that provided further evidence of Iran’s ongoing efforts to weaponize its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Russia’s state nuclear-energy corporation, Rosatom, has expressed readiness to construct additional nuclear reactors in Iran.

The decision to cancel sale of the S-300 — an advanced air-defense system capable of guarding Iran’s nuclear installations — was certainly a positive step. However, rather than resulting from the reset, the move is simply an indication that the Kremlin adheres to some semblance of caution. It doesn’t want to see recently delivered Russian military equipment killing Israeli or American pilots in the event of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. There’s also some evidence to suggest that Moscow had further interests in abandoning the the S-300 contract: Dropping it may have been part of a quid pro quo in which Israel agreed to sell drones to Russia in exchange for the Kremlin’s pledge to halt delivery of the S-300 to Iran and MiG-31s to Syria. Moreover, Russia’s commitment to sell other weapons to Tehran dilutes the significance of its S-300 reversal. Most recently, Russia sent Iran a set of sophisticated radar jammers.

In its categorical praise for the reset, the Obama administration also glosses over Russian threats to target U.S. missile-defense components in Europe, to station tactical ballistic missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave, and to develop new weaponry aimed at the U.S. and its allies. What’s more, Moscow has blocked sanctions against Syria and continues to sell arms to the Assad regime.

But the Republican candidates should raise the issue of Russia for reasons that go beyond President Obama’s misrepresentation of the reset. Last month’s massive protests in Moscow and other cities have shaken the Putin regime to its core. In September, Prime Minister Putin and his on-again-off-again rival, President Dmitry Medvedev, shamelessly announced that they would switch jobs after Russia’s March presidential election — and openly admitted that they had made this decision “years ago,” thus proving that Medvedev’s entire presidency was staged to give the illusion of competitive politics.

Putin’s brazen proclamation that he intends to reclaim the Kremlin was followed three months later by Russia’s December 4 parliamentary election, in which widespread ballot-box-stuffing allowed the United Russia party — Putin’s party — to fraudulently win a majority of seats. The second event coming so soon after the first roused many Russians from their state of political numbness. Since then, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Moscow on two separate occasions. And more demonstrations are being planned in the coming weeks.

Even if these protests fizzle out, however, the underlying frustration with Putin’s rigid and increasingly ineffective governance will remain, and undoubtedly grow, in the absence of substantive reforms. The March presidential vote could become a flashpoint. An evidently rigged Putin victory, with 60 to 70 percent of the vote, coupled with the exclusion of genuine opposition candidates, would create the conditions for an explosive situation in which the regime may very well resort to violence.

For the first time in over a decade, Russia is on the verge of fundamental change, and the GOP candidates would be wise to voice support for the country’s burgeoning democratic movement. President Obama’s tendency to exaggerate and, in some cases, fabricate the reset’s achievements, and his refusal to acknowledge Russian misbehavior, shouldn’t be ignored in favor of criticizing the administration’s more obvious foreign-policy failures.

— Daniel Vajdic is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.