How Russia Views the Reset

How Russia Views the Reset

Iran. START. U.S. missile shields. Georgia. The reset has a long way to go.

On a recent trip to Moscow, I learned that many people within the Russian foreign-policy establishment were surprised that some in Washington circles see the reset policy variously as a great achievement and a huge concession to Russia. Thus, they seem disappointed that Russia isn’t blindly following the U.S. lead on Iran. Russians aren’t inclined to underestimate the improvements, but they also don’t want to overestimate them. If anything, Russia considers the reset to have fostered significant concessions to the United States. These include the compromise on Libya, the help in Afghanistan and the pressure on Iran. The reset, as seen by the Russian side, is an attempt at normal dialogue and a framework within which to hear both sides. Herewith a few points on this subject.

First, we have to take the Russian stance on Iran as a given: The Russian Federation has repeatedly stated that it is against Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Russia supports the use of nuclear energy for civil purposes, which is why it engaged in the six-party talks with Iran to help it realize its ambition for peaceful nuclear-energy use. The Russian position on Iran is unchanged: that Iran’s accumulation of nuclear weapons goes against Russian policy in the region. The Russian leadership continuously supported the UN Security Council resolution on Iran and voted to strengthen sanctions against the Ahmadinejad regime. Russia opposes further tightening on sanctions based on precedent: In a friendly overture to the United States, it didn’t veto military actions against Libya, but those snowballed into regime change with unclear consequences and factional civil war (in addition to contract losses for Russia). When it comes to Iran, Russia doesn’t want to risk having a newly unstable state on its border with all the uncertainty and civil-war potential that a new regime implies. Where is the guarantee that we won’t get an even worse crisis on our border if we impose more sanctions? And as the Russian side considers that there is still room for diplomacy; many experts say Iran is still far from obtaining an actual nuclear weapon.

Second, efforts to portray the reset as some sort of favor to Russia and the START treaty on nuclear weapons as a gift by the United States are misguided. Russians view these as efforts to normalize relations between the two countries—relations that had nearly disintegrated under the Bush administration. If Republicans have a problem with the Obama administration’s push for START, it isn’t because of the reset with Russia. The most prominent opponent of START in the U.S. Congress, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, says his opposition to START stemmed from his desire to force the Obama administration to allot more money for modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, not because he opposed improved relations with Russia. In Russian-American diplomacy, both countries have their interests, and they can’t possibly converge on every issue. For example, U.S. troop withdrawals from the Middle East will likely foster serious turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, while the Iranian threat of nuclear-weapons acquisition lingers in the background. Russian cooperation will thus grow more crucial for the United States. American policy analysts should accept that good relations are beneficial for both sides and that Americans can’t punish Russia by withholding cooperation, as Washington would be the loser.

Regarding U.S. plans to deploy antimissile defense elements in Europe, some American commentators see a big U.S. concession to Russia in the cancellation of U.S. plans to station radar elements in the Czech Republic and missile shields in Poland. But the current administration hasn’t halted the plans. It still plans to deploy antimissile elements on vessels around Spain and in Romania and Turkey instead of on Polish and Czech territory. And Turkey is closer to the Russian border than the Czech Republic. Analysts in Russia continue to believe the U.S. antimissile shield is aimed at countering Russia’s nuclear deterrent. So far, NATO has refused to present Russia with written guarantees that the U.S. missile shield wouldn’t threaten Moscow. Even Prime Minister Putin expressed great concern on the matter. So there has been little reset there.

Regarding the situation following the war with Georgia, it is noteworthy that the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have placed their territory under Russian protection and have never had any desire to be part of Georgia. The regions were placed in Georgian borders under the Stalin Constitution of the USSR, but even before the collapse of the Soviet Union they voted for their independence from Georgia. Two successive Georgian presidents then waged war on the regions to no avail. The end of the Russia-Georgia war (the third one involving a Georgian president) and the peace agreement between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev specified the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territories before they were declared (and recognized by Russia) as independent. Their newly minted independence began with treaties between Russia on the one hand and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other that Russia would provide troops for protection. However, it would be a mistake to regard Abkhazia and South Ossetia as fully dependent Russian protectorates. Both regions have held competitive elections, and elected officials there are not Kremlin-anointed lackeys. Russian troops are stationed there by the power of the same type of agreement that legitimizes NATO troops in Kosovo. Following the precedent of Kosovo, there’s no justification in the argument that Russia is occupying Georgian territory, particularly after a war that Tbilisi provoked (as confirmed by both the EU and OSCE investigative commissions). Further, it is perplexing that some Washington analysts see a danger to global security in Moscow’s limited military presence in the South Caucasus. These modest Moscow forces can hardly compare with the multitude of sophisticated U.S. military bases that have mushroomed all over the globe.

Irrespective of who wins the presidential elections of the two countries, both can find many areas of cooperation if they truly wish to do so. Perhaps after the elections, the reset can be reset.

Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.