Obama's Missing Russia Strategy

Long before Snowden, an aimless administration was bungling Putin and Russia.

President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his planned September meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow is hardly surprising. U.S.-Russian relations have been on a downward slide for over eighteen months and the deterioration has only accelerated since Edward Snowden’s unexpected arrival at Sheremetyevo airport six weeks ago. Nevertheless, while there are some important underlying reasons for the trouble between the White House and the Kremlin, including differing interests, values and perspectives, the mutual disillusionment is much deeper than it needed to be. And in many respects, the Obama administration’s Russia policy is a self-inflicted wound. Hopefully, administration officials will find a way to stop the bleeding before it becomes more serious—which it could.

The Obama-Putin relationship did not start well even in 2009, when Mr. Obama described Putin as having “one foot in the past” while on the way to meet then-president Dmitry Medvedev and Putin in Moscow. Differences over the 2011 U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya also had a significant impact on U.S.-Russia ties, though it was contained at the time and some progress continued. The recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations began with Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he planned to return to the presidency in September 2011 and escalated during opposition protests following Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary elections. By past U.S. standards, the administration’s reaction to these two events was measured—and provoked some criticism in the United States for being too weak—but by Russian standards it was unwanted interference in the country’s internal affairs that deepened existing resentments and built on an existing sense that America wanted Putin and his supporters out.

Still, the Kremlin would likely have gotten over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s sharp words but for two problems. First was the administration’s lack of a strategic vision for U.S.-Russian relations, and its related inability to define a positive agenda. [Note to Obama defenders: don’t tell me about arms control—regardless of its potential security benefits, most Americans and Russians don’t care about it, and therefore it does little or nothing to build a basis for a sustainable, cooperative relationship between the United States and Russia while simultaneously cranking up the worst-case scenario generators in the basements of the Pentagon and Russia’s Defense Ministry.] Absent vision and an agenda, U.S.-Russian differences are more likely to dominate.

The second was the administration’s foolish decision to change ambassadors—prematurely, outside the State Department’s normal schedule—in this already tense environment. The Obama administration removed a capable career ambassador and replaced him with a talented scholar-turned-White House official who managed relationships well at the National Security Council but whose background as a democracy advocate made him instantly a symbol and a lightning rod in Russia.

Had U.S. officials been able to wait, the new ambassador could have assumed his post after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated in May—and without having to comment personally on Russia’s March presidential election or holding de rigueur high-profile meetings with Russian opposition figures during a very tense election cycle. Regular minor controversies during the period between Russia’s two elections, some clearly manufactured by Russian official media, perpetuated existing problems.

Once Putin was back in the Kremlin, Washington and Moscow began to face the unintended consequences of their success in concluding a bilateral agreement that cleared the way for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, a long-held goal for both nations for which each government deserves credit. Ironically, because Russia’s WTO membership required the Senate and the House of Representatives to repeal Cold War–era Jackson-Vanik Amendment trade restrictions to avoid penalizing American companies, it created an opening for the Magnitsky Act, a bill that would almost certainly otherwise have languished and died at the end of the legislative session, as it had done previously. Russia’s July 2012 law on nongovernmental organizations, which applies pressure to NGOs accepting foreign funds, added fuel to the fire in Washington and may have discouraged the administration from any serious effort to block the Magnitsky legislation by spending its political capital with Congressional Democrats.

The Magnitsky Act gives the executive branch authority it already had to block visas and freeze assets of Russians suspected of involvement in serious corruption or human-rights violations—and its passage prompted the Russian State Duma to retaliate by passing the Dima Yakovlev law, which blocked adoptions to the United States, ostensibly out of concern for the health and safety of children who often face more systematically disturbing conditions in Russian orphanages. This parliamentary tit-for-tat accelerated the downward spiral in the second half of 2012 and early 2013.