When President Obama sold the United States’ “reset” with Russia to the American people in 2009, he labeled it, among other things, an important effort aimed at securing Russian support in the fight to stop Iran from going nuclear. By resetting relations, Obama argued that the U.S. could secure Russian support for sanctions against Iran, reduce nuclear stockpiles and “find common interests that form a basis for cooperation.”
Evidently no one translated that message into Russian.
Less than three years removed from the “reset,” Russia has vowed to nix any further sanctions against Iran, and it is using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to protect the Assad regime in Syria. The Russians are vilifying Michael McFaul, the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia and architect of the “reset,” throughout state-sponsored media. And just in case Washington didn’t get the message, Alexei Pushkov, Chairman of the State Duma International Committee, told reporters late last month that “there are no serious prospects for the reset.” Ouch.
That the “reset” is failing should come as no surprise. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has two primary interests: holding onto power and securing his and Russia’s monetary fortunes. Putin is interested in an improved relationship with the U.S. only insofar as it would help further those aims — and at the outset of the “reset,” it could have.
In 2009, the Russians had much to gain from the “reset”: admittance into the World Trade Organization, an increased sphere of influence and the ability to prevent the U.S. from establishing missile defense bases in Eastern Europe. Now achieved, these gains have helped Russia both economically and strategically, and in turn made the Russian leadership more secure as well. Now, though, Putin looks at the shifting international landscape and sees his interests threatened by the tide of regime change sweeping the globe. In Putin’s own backyard, there are 120,000 Russian protesters braving sub-zero temperatures and calling for him to go.
With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have undertaken a foreign policy primarily aimed at protecting their own rule, even if that means bucking the “reset.” In the Security Council, Russia is now blocking any and all initiatives that seek to exert foreign influence over sovereign states’ internal affairs. In the media, Putin is decrying the West and its penchant for “interference,” likening its behavior to “a bull in a china shop.” And because Putin doesn’t want to be the bull’s next victim, his government is prolonging the conflict in Syria by honoring arms agreements with the Assad regime and blocking an Arab League-backed resolution aimed at ending the violence.
Of course, the Kremlin’s actions vis-à-vis Syria are not solely aimed at stopping the tide of foreign interference in sovereign states — they are meant to secure roughly four billion dollars worth of arms contracts between the two nations as well. Russia is also ostensibly protecting its military interests in Syria, where it maintains an active naval base. And despite his tenuous position, Assad does remain one of Russia’s strongest allies in the ever-volatile Middle East, which renders the Kremlin’s support somewhat more understandable.
But even these “pragmatic” considerations point to a Russian leadership whose ultimate interest is self-preservation. If the Russian leadership were truly interested in securing Russian national interests in the region, would they lend so much support to a Syria that seems sure to fall? Probably not, considering that a new regime in Syria would almost certainly remember Russia’s role in prolonging the conflict. More significantly, if Putin were interested in Russian national interests, would he so flippantly spurn a relationship with the United States after that relationship helped secure concessions in areas like missile defenses? Again, from the standpoint of protecting Russian national interests, it wouldn’t seem so.
But if the Russian leadership is acting primarily out of self-interest, then the decision to stay on a sinking Syrian ship makes sense. There are, of course, those highly lucrative arms contracts at stake. More importantly, by taking a hard-line stance on Syria, Putin hopes to stop a tide of foreign interference that may one day threaten his own grip on power. And if Putin assumes there will be few ramifications for Russian intransigence, then playing the anti-American card allows him to appeal to large swaths of older Russian voters who still harbor animus toward the West.
In assessing the future of the “reset,” the Obama administration would be wise to consider Churchill’s counsel about Russian action in 1939. Churchill remarked that the key to unlocking the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” of Russian action is understanding “Russian national interest.”
Today, “Russian national interest” often means “Putin’s personal interest.” The future of the “reset” depends on appreciating that reality.
Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.