By Daniel Vajdic, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel Vajdic is a researcher in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
At least as far as foreign policy went, Russia received an unexpected amount of attention in this year’s U.S. presidential election campaign. Whether it was the Romney team’s dismissing the so-called reset, its claim that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” or President Obama’s infamous open mic moment, in which he promised his Russian counterpart “flexibility” on missile defense if reelected, ties with Moscow kept cropping up.
It is, of course, true that the Cold War world no longer exists, and that Russia occupies a far less significant space in American foreign policy. And the U.S.-Russia relationship simply is not as overtly antagonistic as it was in the Soviet era. But it is also clear that Russia continues to pose serious challenges for the United States.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions for President Obama for how he should approach Russia in his second term.
Forget the reset. The election is over. It’s time to face reality. And the reality is that Russia has rapidly regressed from soft authoritarianism into a less qualified dictatorship that shields brutal regimes around the world with ever greater brazenness. What’s more, the Russian leadership has all but acknowledged that the reset is over. And if you don’t trust the Kremlin’s words, then consider its actions. Putin blamed opposition protests on “signals” that Hillary Clinton had supposedly sent to incite revolts against his regime. In September, the Foreign Ministry announced the expulsion of USAID from Russia and rejected the State Department’s request for a six-month extension to wind down grants. And, last month, Moscow decided that it will not negotiate a follow-on Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction pact with the U.S. These are trends that even the reset’s most ardent supporters cannot ignore.
Discuss human rights. Any U.S. administration will make democracy and human rights promotion a component of its foreign policy – it is part of who we are as a nation. But some presidents place more emphasis on this than others, and President Obama has been oddly reluctant to talk about Russia’s weakened democracy and the country’s deteriorating human rights record. When the U.S. waxes and wanes in its commitment to human rights from one administration to another, it creates the impression that these are issues are negotiable, when in fact they are not.
For Russia specifically, Obama should back the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which was passed in the House on Friday and which would impose U.S. travel and financial restrictions on human rights violators in Russia (and perhaps around the world). The Magnitsky Act has been quietly opposed by the Obama administration on Capitol Hill, while in Moscow the entire spectrum of Russia’s leftist, liberal, and nationalist opposition calls for its adoption.
Recognize that they need us more than we need them. With the election over, President Obama does not need to stick to his false narrative that the reset has been a success, and he no longer needs to maintain the illusion of an effective reset policy to blunt Governor Romney’s attacks. This provides an opportunity for the administration to objectively evaluate Russia’s accelerated drift toward authoritarianism and Putin’s unmistakable intent to reduce his country’s interaction with the West. True, Moscow did sign the New START arms control pact. But Russia, unlike the U.S., was already below the treaty’s most important ceilings when it came into force. This was an unconditional yet totally unappreciated gift to the Kremlin. From Afghanistan to arms control – and pretty much everything in between – when Russia works with the U.S., it does so because such cooperation is essential to achieve its own interests.
President Obama needs to acknowledge all this as he begins to chart his second term foreign policy. More broadly, he should recognize that he was reelected in spite, not because, of his polices. He will need to change course in numerous foreign policy areas, but Russia is one of the more pressing.