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So Much for the Reset

David Satter

The news that Russia has no plans to hand over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden casts an important light on the “reset” policy that has defined US-Russian relations for almost five years.

The Snowden case should be relatively straightforward. He has violated the laws of the US. His passport has been cancelled, and he cannot legally leave the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The US has asked for his return. In the last five years, the US has returned 1,700 Russian citizens to Russia at the request of the government. Of these, 500 were criminal deportations.

Despite this, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Snowden had the right to “fly in any direction” from the transit zone. This type of response was exactly what the reset policy was supposed to prevent. The policy was based on the notion that President Bush had mishandled Russia and responsiveness to Russian concerns would produce positive results. The policy, however, had a serious flaw. It failed to account for the nature of the Russian system and the psychology of the Russian leaders.

In making policy toward Russia, the US has concentrated on what are called “deliverables” — treaties, agreements, working groups. In the interest of obtaining these deliverables, the US deliberately downplayed Russian violations of human rights. When Putin was elected president of Russia for the third time in elections marked by massive falsification, Obama congratulated him. At the 2009 Moscow Summit, Obama praised the “extraordinary work” that Putin had done in Russia. He described Putin as “sincere, just and deeply interested in the interests of the Russian people.” This was done despite credible reports that while running Russia, Putin had amassed a personal fortune of nearly $40 billion and was the richest man in Europe.

The policy, however, produced very little in the way or results. One of the prime justifications for the “reset” was that it would induce Russia to cooperate in the Middle East. In the latest example of the policy’s failure, Russia consistently has backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and supplied it with weapons, despite its mass atrocities against civilians, greatly sabotaging efforts to achieve a non-extremist outcome. In the case of Iran, Russia used its vote in the UN Security Council to frustrate efforts to impose sanctions on Iran, only agreeing in a few cases after the sanctions had been watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

The US did conclude a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, but this was actually a gift to Russia assuring the country of nuclear parity that it could not otherwise afford, while neglecting Russia’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons that are still capable of menacing the West.

The most important positive development was the transit agreement that allowed the massive supply and transport of US forces in Afghanistan across Russian territory. This has been depicted as a victory of the reset policy, but Russia has a vital interest in containing the Taliban lest they pose a threat to Russia’s allied regimes in Central Asia and inspire revolt in the Muslim regions of Russia itself. Refusing to help the NATO effort in Afghanistan would have been possible but, from the point of view of Russia’s own strategic interests, nearly suicidal.

It might be feared that Russia’s position in the case of Edward Snowden is a reaction to the passage by Congress of the Magnitsky Act, which bans entry to the US for Russians involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who investigated a massive tax fraud carried out by high-ranking officials. In fact, the Magnitsky legislation probably had nothing to do with the Russian reaction as much as Russian officials may seek to create that impression.

Anti-US policies are adopted because of the need of a small group of corrupt leaders to protect themselves from their own population.

By seeking to buy cooperation from the Russian leadership in return for ignoring their misrule, we are not guaranteeing good USRussian relations. We simply assure that the inevitable bad relations will be complemented by damage to the long-term historical relationship that we need to establish with Russian society itself.

The Russian officials know that the return of Snowden is important to US national security and the protection of American lives. The Russian regime, however, will see in this only an opportunity to propagandize the most uniformed parts of the Russian population. The reset policy will not induce them to cooperate if they don’t see some advantage for themselves. This is why we need to be free of it to establish a relationship based on complete honesty with the Russian population.

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