Spinning the Realities of the Reset

Weak reporting in The Washington Post attempts to mask the sad state of U.S.-Russia relations.

The Washington Post’s editorial page is entitled to endorse Barack Obama for president—as it did in October 2008—but all too often the paper’s reporters appear to endorse the administration as well, through slanted reporting that fails to question administration policy and perspectives and in fact serves to defend them. Kathy Lally’s May 17 article “Anti-American rhetoric subsides in Russia” is the latest example of the Post’s weak and simplistic work.

Lally implies that Moscow’s rhetoric and policy toward Washington are softening after Vladimir Putin’s reelection as president—something administration officials doubtless hope is true, given the emphasis they have put on the “reset”—and then proceeds to make her case on the basis of a superficial reading of Putin’s May 7 instructions to the Russian Foreign Ministry, buttressed by quotes from two liberal Moscow intellectuals and a woman in the audience at a U.S. embassy-sponsored jazz concert.

Putin’s decree does call for “stable and predictable cooperation” aimed at “a truly strategic level” of cooperation—but then proceeds to explain that this should be on the basis of “non-interference in internal affairs” “respect for mutual interests,” and remaining “committed to Russia’s position” on missile defense. If Lally had read the decree carefully rather than selectively, it should have been apparent to someone with her experience in Russia that it does not signal any improvement in Russian policy—on the contrary, it pays lip service to cooperation while emphasizing Moscow’s grievances diplomatically but clearly. The contrast is especially apparent if one also reads the section on Europe, which is largely unqualified in its positive tone and also appears much earlier in the document in a not-too-subtle statement about Russian priorities. Putin’s decision to skip the G-8 summit at Camp David, and to attend the Beijing summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in early June, makes a similar point.

Lally’s piece is weakest in its conclusion, which suggests that notwithstanding strong statements by Russian officials, draft legislation providing for asset seizures and visa bans directed at Russian and other foreign officials who engage in corruption or human-rights violations would not really affect U.S.-Russian relations. The Magnitsky bill, as it is known, can and should be an important part of U.S. policy toward Russia with a tighter focus and strong safeguards. But minimizing its possible impact on Russia’s policy toward the United States serves no one other than the Obama administration, which is still trying to claim the reset as a major foreign policy success. In fact, strong reporting in The New York Times already has indicated that Russian officials feel the administration has misled them about its relatively limited efforts to fight the bill.

It is dangerous for members of Congress to think the White House will accept the Magnitsky bill even as Russian officials think the president will fight it. It is likewise dangerous for the president to reassure Dmitri Medvedev about his “flexibility” on missile defense after the election while telling congressional Republicans that he will accept no limits. White House officials may hope to juggle these contradictions until the end of the year, but sooner or later the president’s Russia policy will run head-first into reality—probably sooner on the Magnitsky bill and later on missile defense, where Russian insistence on Senate-ratified guarantees will also force a showdown.

Serious reporting from Moscow would help to expose the reset’s false promises now in a way that might damage the administration’s political narrative about the reset but would avoid greater harm to U.S.-Russian relations down the road. This kind of reporting does the opposite.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Image: Mika V. Stetsovski