President Barack Obama arrives here today facing a dilemma of his own making. Having called for a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, the U.S. side is virtually obliged to make some new overtures. But Russia does not need to be engaged. It needs to be deterred.
The expectations that Mr. Obama has inspired are substantial. Both officials and ordinary citizens in Russia interpret the call for a reset as an admission of U.S. guilt for ignoring Russia’s interests. Sergei Rybakov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said that mutual trust was “lacking over the last several years.” It was the task of the U.S. to show its good intentions with “concrete actions” because in Russia, the U.S. is “deeply distrusted.”
Accepting the Russian view of reality on the issues that divide the U.S. and Russia, however, would be a grave mistake. Russia aspires to resurrect a version of the Soviet Union in which it projects power and dominates its neighbors. To encourage its ambitions in any way would be to undermine not only U.S. security but, in the long run, the security of Russia as well.
There are three important areas of conflict between the U.S. and Russia: NATO expansion, the U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe and the Russian human rights situation. In each case, any reset should be on the Russian side.
The most urgent issue may be NATO expansion. There are serious indications that Russia is preparing for a second invasion of Georgia. The first Georgian war was accompanied by a burst of patriotism in Russia but didn’t achieve its strategic objectives. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power and Georgia remains a supply corridor to the West for energy from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Many Russian leaders want to finish the job. At a televised forum in December, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked about press reports that he had told French president Nicolas Sarkozy that Mr. Saakashvili should be “hung by his ba**s.” He replied, “Why only by one part?”
Under these circumstances, the best protection for Georgia is NATO membership. According to Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst with Novaya Gazeta, the decision to invade Georgia last August came in April after NATO failed to offer outright a Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine at its annual summit in Bucharest.
Russia will argue strenuously that Georgia, Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics are part of its sphere of “privileged interests.” This is an issue on which Mr. Obama cannot give way. If the former Soviet republics are denied NATO membership at Russia’s behest, they either will be turned into Russian satellites with manipulated elections and a controlled foreign policy or form a zone of instability along Russia’s borders with unpredictable consequences for both Russia and the West.
Beside the issue of NATO expansion, Russia and the U.S. have a critical conflict over U.S. plans to install a missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. Not only have U.S. experts argued that the anti-missile system is not aimed at Russia but Russia’s military experts agree. Nonetheless, the system is described by Russian leaders as a threat and denunciations of the missile shield are a staple of the anti-Western programming on Russian state television.
According to Mikhail Delyagin, who served as an adviser to former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the placement of rockets in Poland is unacceptable to Russia for emotional and symbolic reasons. “It shows that the U.S. is now the master in Eastern Europe,” he said. Any decision to yield to Russian objections, however, would effectively divide NATO into countries that need Russian approval for deployments and those that do not. Even dubious Russian promises to help with Iran would not compensate for the damage done to the alliance by such a concession to Russian pretensions.
Finally, there is the conflict between Russia and the U.S. over human rights. The status of human rights is a universal concern but it also has strategic implications. A population that lacks democratic rights and is subject to constant anti-Western propaganda can easily be mobilized against the U.S.
By any measure, the state of human rights in Russia is unacceptable. Russia today lacks honest elections or a separation of powers. The regime allows a degree of freedom but the features of daily life include police torture, prisoner abuse, political control of the courts and, for democratic activists, the danger of being beaten or killed. The result is that fear has returned to Russia less than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The regime is also taking steps to curtail freedom of speech. Freedom of the press has long been restricted under Mr. Putin with censorship on state run television and pressure on newspapers through their owners, to exercise self censorship. Peaceful demonstrations have also been forcibly dispersed. In recent weeks, however, a bill has been introduced in the State Duma that would make it illegal to deny the role of the Soviet Union in the victory in World War II or the crimes of Hitler’s cronies (but not the crimes of Stalin and his entourage). The punishment both for Russian citizens and for foreigners will be three to five years in prison.
In the run up to Mr. Obama’s visit, Russian academics and self described realists in the U.S. have called for a “grand deal” in which the U.S. accedes to Russian demands in the former Soviet Union in return for Russian help on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. In the case of Iran, Russia, which has repeatedly thwarted tough United Nations resolutions on that country’s nuclear energy program, is offering to assist in dealing with a problem that it helped to create.
Unfortunately such a deal, the only “reset” in which the Russians have shown any interest, would eliminate moral criteria from the U.S.-Russian relationship and deprive the U.S. of any basis for limiting Russia’s demands in the future. Under those circumstances, Russia’s appetite is likely to grow.
Mr. Obama may wish to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship but the problems in that relationship come not from our actions but from assumptions on the Russian side about the prerogatives of power that we cannot possibly accept. Instead of resetting relations, we may just have to content ourselves with resisting Russian pretensions until such time as the mentality that gives rise to them can be changed.