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  • Obama's Russia Policy: A Disappointing First Year

    President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

    President Barack Obama’s Russia policy is defined by the Administration’s view that America is overstretched globally, and that without assistance from a major power, such as Russia or China, Washington cannot achieve its goals. Some in the Administration believe that America is in decline and their job is to manage it. The policy of “outstretched hand” toward Russia (as well as other unfriendly powers) follows from this notion. So far, President Obama has failed to achieve any impressive results.

    The Administration did not succeed in gaining Russian concessions on issues of U.S. top priority, such as Russian support of Iran sanctions, START negotiations and U.S. missile defense in Europe. In addition, the implementation of a tentative agreement with Moscow to support NATO and the United States on Afghanistan expeditionary force resupply is excruciatingly slow.

    The Obama White House and State Department are very shy when it comes to Russian designs against Georgia, relations with Ukraine, pipeline politics in Eurasia, violations of human rights, and the rule of law. While some senior officials recognize the importance of these topics, others view them as irritants.

    Russian officials told this blogger that the Obama Administration listens better [than that of George W. Bush], but “did not offer anything substantive.” Others compared Obama with Gorbachev – in terms of presiding over a great power in decline and referring to his naïveté. A senior Russian official half-jokingly said the U.S. concessions were “birthday presents for President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.”

    Sure, the Kremlin will pocket the U.S. concessions and ask for more. It was blatantly clear to this blogger as early as September 2009, (after spending ten days with the leading Russian foreign policy experts), that the Obama Administration did not – and will not — receive any quid-pro-quo for the significant concessions it provided to Russia as a part of its “reset button” policy.

    Another systemic problem Obama faced in Russia is the duopoly of power. Obama spent many hours talking to Medvedev, whereas the real decision making lies with Putin. Talking to the wrong guy is a bad negotiating strategy.

    Let’s examine the track record of Obama’s Russia policy. The mis-labled “reset button” (mistranslated as “overload” by someone at State) said it all. The decision to abandon a permanent ballistic missile defense (“the third site”) in Poland and Czech Republic was aimed to placate Russia and gain its support for UN sanctions against Iran. Instead, that decision signaled U.S. weakness and encouraged Russian intransigence. It failed to generate Moscow’s good will or support in the UN Security Council on robust sanctions against Teheran.

    The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations were hailed as the centerpiece of U.S. Russia policy, but they are stuck in the muck. The Obama administration has failed to complete the negotiation of the START follow-on treaty by Dec. 5. The two superpowers are now in unchartered waters. The Russians already kicked-out U.S. inspectors, thus scrapping a key provision of the now-dead treaty.

    Prime Minister Vladimir Putin upped the ante, linking U.S. missile defenses with the treaty signature. Speaking in Vladivostok later that week, Mr. Putin warned against U.S. “aggressiveness” and disruption of the nuclear balance in case the Obama administration deploys missile defenses. The United States rejected such linkage. But Putin will not relent: he now demands to terminate poultry imports from the United States, despite the fact that it will boost the price of chicken in every pot in Mother Russia.

    The Obama Administration misplaced its hopes on Russian assistance with U.S. efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program. However, a review of Russian policy on Iran since the mid-1990s under Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev demonstrates that Russia’s interests in Iran fundamentally diverge from the U.S. agenda.

    Powerful Russian special interests — security, nuclear, oil and gas, and the military-industrial complex — are vehemently opposed to any significant reversal of Russian policy toward Iran. Therefore, it is naïve, if not dangerous, to hope that Moscow will provide decisive assistance in the U.N. Security Council or bilaterally vis-à-vis Iran. The Obama Administration and Congress should recognize this inconvenient truth.

    The Administration ignored Russia’s growing military deployment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and it indefinitely delayed a push for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Obama also downgraded relations with Ukraine and Georgia. He sent Vice President Joe Biden to Kyiv and Tbilisi two weeks after Obama’a trip to Moscow. This diluted a key message which Washington consistently beamed at Moscow since the Clinton Administration: that Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors.

    It is too expansive to have a U.S. president learning on the job. Misreading Russia’s great power agenda, overestimation of one’s own negotiating capabilities, misplaced and idealistic faith in the merits of arms control, and dialogue at all costs all this brought Barack Obama’s Russia policy into dangerous shoals. One hopes that the President will learn his lessons and that his second year in office will benefit the United States in the Administration’s dealings with Putin & Co.

    Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

    Posted in Security [slideshow_deploy]

    6 Responses to Obama's Russia Policy: A Disappointing First Year

    1. John B. San Diego says:

      Mr. Cohen one does not enter a "Chess Game" against a "Master" intending to look over one's shoulder for the next strategy (considered a cheat).

      A true "Chess Master" has plans for every attack and retreat laid out in advance.

      Our Russian Friends have been taught by the best of our master strategists in the past unfortunately we have no master in the White House, and when he looks over his shoulder the promises of success are worst.

      RUSSIANS are laughing at us and taunting us, "TRUELY HUMILATING" SIR!

    2. Drew Page, IL says:

      Mr. Obama's has no experience in foreign policy, nor does his Secretary of State. The world sees this. The world also sees how Mr. Obama's popularity has dwindled in the U.S.; how economically weakened America has become; how politically divided our have become; and how war weary the public has become. The world sees this as weakness.

      We have a President who can't govern and will not lead. We have instead a socialistic Harvard legal professor, who put together a great campaign, but can't stop campaigning, because it's the only thing he knows how to do. What he doesn't seem to understand is that at some point the people who elected him actually expect him to live up to the campaign promises. He is the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time.

    3. J.P., Virginia says:

      @ Dr. Cohen:

      "The Obama White House and State Department are very shy when it comes to Russian designs against Georgia, relations with Ukraine, pipeline politics in Eurasia, violations of human rights, and the rule of law."

      Dr. Cohen sees only failures and disappointments because he believes that Russia is a revisionist resurgent power. The Obama administration sees Russia for what it is — a shadow of its former self, crippled by the global crisis. Therefore, Obama doesn't feel the necessity to play hard rhetoric with Russia; the Bush White House was not shy and that didn't work either. Tough talk on "energy blackmail" was a check that our mouth wrote to Central Europe but that our behinds couldn't cash. While Ukraine's free and fair election shows they have grown up quite a bit and can handle things on their own, their dismal economy dependent on metals and constant infighting would not have been affected if the US chose to "support" Kyiv in the past year.

      "The decision to abandon a permanent ballistic missile defense (“the third site”) in Poland and Czech Republic was aimed to placate Russia and gain its support for UN sanctions against Iran. Instead, that decision signaled U.S. weakness and encouraged Russian intransigence."

      Would a conservative please, please explain to me — why is it awful for Congress to run up trillions in deficit and spend taxpayers' money on odious projects, but it is completely OK to spend billions of taxpayers' money for Poland to have ground-based interceptors (which are not proven to work) so Polish right-wing governments (PiS and PO) can feel "safer" against Russia and fuel their own historical inferiority complexes?

      @Drew Page:

      "Mr. Obama’s has no experience in foreign policy, nor does his Secretary of State."

      Sec. Rice went to Moscow, chided Russia on democracy, went home empty-handed. Sec. Clinton went to Moscow, chided Russia on democracy, went home empty-handed. Do you see a pattern?

      "The world also sees how Mr. Obama’s popularity has dwindled in the U.S.; how economically weakened America has become; how politically divided our have become; and how war weary the public has become. The world sees this as weakness."

      Dr. Cohen described Russians' perceptions of America. It doesn't make them accurate. I guarantee you that Russia's economy is in far worse shape than America's. It shrank 8.5% in 2009; its budget deficit is 6% of GDP — a huge blow after a decade of surpluses. Would you rather do business in Russia or America? Would you rather have partisanship or authoritarian rule? What is a perceived weakness through partisan lenses is still a strength compared to the world at large.

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    5. Jacek Lubecki, Littl says:

      Mr. Cohen presented a partisan tirade that pretends to be a piece of analysis. A mind is a wonderful thing – why waste it? I am sure that he actually knows something of substance about Obama's policy towards Russia and vice-versa – too bad that his partisan blinders make him write this worthless rhetoric instead…..

    6. Vladimar I want the US

      And Russia to become better

      Friends with SpacE and

      Nuclear fuel I just ordered

      Chevron and BP off of my

      Property make sure it gets

      Done I will make more work

      For luk OIL.Take the police

      Or military with you to

      Remove them Dmitry has a copy

      Of comlaint I sent to his

      Office 4 days ago. I will

      Be spending time in Russia

      And Us and other countries

      My family ruled before they

      Were assassinated. See You soon.

      Her Imperial Highness Margaret

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