Whoever wins the U.S. presidency, Washington's Russia policy needs a reassessment and a rethink. The "reset" has run its course. The Obama administration's vaunted policy of engaging with Moscow did away with the irritants of the previous administration and allowed a modicum of cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan supply routes. It has failed to give America's Russia policy a strategic depth, but this was never the intention. But Mitt Romney's portrayal of Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe" and promising to be tough on Putin is not a policy either. Rhetoric has its uses on the campaign trail, but its value greatly diminishes when the challenger becomes the incumbent. The real choice for the new administration lies between keeping Russia on the periphery of the U.S. foreign policy, which means essentially taking a tactical approach, and treating Russia as an asset in America's global strategy.
Frankly, the former approach appears much more likely. As the United States struggles with the plethora of issues in the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan, and focuses more on China and Asia, Russia will be seen as a marginal or irrelevant factor. In some cases, as in Afghanistan, Moscow will continue to provide valuable logistical support; in others, such as Iran's nuclear program, it might be considered useful, but only up to a point; in still other cases, like Syria, it will be regarded as a spoiler due to its consistent opposition to the U.S. effort to topple the Assad regime. As regards China and East Asia, the United States will continue to ignore Russia, whose resources and role are believed to be negligible in that part of the world. Tellingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seminal "pivot" article in Foreign Policy did not care to mention Russia at all.When Russia's cooperation on foreign policy is deemed to matter little, and its opposition regarded as little more than nuisance, Moscow's interests and concerns are unlikely to be taken seriously in Washington. Reaching a deal on missile defense with the Russians and selling that deal in Washington may prove too much for the new Obama administration; a Romney White House would probably not bother to reach out to the Kremlin at all, even as it goes ahead with NATO deployments in Europe. That NATO's further enlargement to the east would likely continue to stall would have more to do with the political realities in Ukraine and Georgia, however, than with any restraint in Washington.
Moreover, various constituencies in the United States might take a more proactive attitude with regard to the domestic developments in Russia. Nearly a year after the beginning of large-scale protests following the flawed parliamentary elections last December, the Russia's domestic socio-political crisis has deepened. The Russian Awakening is on the way -- but the situation is complex, and the outcome wide open. A temptation arises to assist in the process by putting pressure on those in power (e.g., by means of the Magnitsky Bill, soon to become law) while simultaneously encouraging those who sail with the winds of change.
This has already made Washington a factor in Russian domestic politics. Even as the protesters deride the notion of being on the payroll of the United States, the Kremlin has been seeking to brand the opposition as "foreign agents" and to present itself as the fulcrum of Russian patriotism and defender of the national interest. In this logic, verbal attacks on Putin from the outside world benefit him. (And Romney's remarks help a lot.) Taking the cue from the authors of the Magnitsky Bill, the Kremlin is considering ordering Russian officials to repatriate their assets. If the elites' resistance could be overcome, this move would kill two birds with one stone: make Moscow less vulnerable to outside pressure, and increase the Kremlin's control over those who serve it. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has made several steps toward reducing U.S. influence in the country -- passing new restrictions on NGOs, expanding the definition of high treason, and ending USAID and Nunn-Lugar programs in Russia.
There is no way to insulate Russian domestic politics from the relationship with Washington. A few things, however, need to be taken into account. One, domestic changes in Russia will come, but they will come as a result of internal dynamics. Outside interference, even of marginal utility, can backfire badly. Two, the likely changes in Russia will not necessarily make it closer to the United States politically. As it transforms further, Russia will probably swing to the socialist left and at the same time become more nationalistic. Three, whatever happens in the country internally, Russia will be determined to remain an independent strategic player.
With all this in mind, should and can the United States develop a strategic approach to Russia or just continue to approach it tactically? The next administration must do the former. Russia has a view about the global order which prioritizes sovereignty and non-interference in countries' internal affairs. Coupled with Moscow's blocking power at the U.N. Security Council, going around Russia has real costs for the United States. Russia has more relevance than any other country -- except for the United States itself -- on the whole range of nuclear weapons issues, from arms control and strategic stability to WMD proliferation and talks with Iran and North Korea. Russia also has an intimate if complex relationship with China, from coordinating policies that frustrate Washington at the U.N. level to over 2,700 miles of common border to cooperation-cum-competition in the arms sphere.
The intellectual problem facing U.S. policymakers is that present-day Russia is neither an ally to be led nor a serious threat to be contained. This problem needs to be addressed if U.S. foreign policy is to be more than a fire brigade rushing from one conflict to another (be that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria) or a power engaged in successive confrontations -- with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and, as some believe, possibly with China. The starting point for escaping that pattern is thinking through the implications of the fundamental geopolitical, economic, demographic, technological changes in the international system. At the moment, the United States seems to be too much obsessed with the rise of China and over-preoccupied with the developments in the Arab world. By contrast, Europe, Africa, India, Latin America, and Russia are all getting scant attention. For a truly global policy, there has to be a better balance.
As to the Russia policy proper, three strategic goals would make sense. First is achieving practical cooperation with Moscow through coordinated missile defenses in Europe, which would not only make the Euro-Atlantic a zone of stable peace, but also ensure that Russia will not be on the wrong side of the United States in the evolving global balance. Second is promoting economic cooperation in the North Pacific, where the United States and Russia are near neighbors. A joint project, also involving Canada, Japan, and other countries such as Australia can both help Russia develop its Siberian and Pacific provinces, and contribute to overall stability in the region. Third is the joint economic, transport, and infrastructure development of the Arctic, where Russia has the longest shoreline of the five littoral countries.
Can the United States focus on those issues or will it instead continue to treat Russia as near-irrelevant in global terms but still dangerous to its smaller neighbors which require U.S. protection and support? Obama would probably be a better manager of the relationship than Romney, but even for him Russia comes as an afterthought, an accessory to more important issues such as Afghanistan. Romney's foreign policy is an open question, and finding a place for Russia in it will be even more challenging. Can the next administration strike the right balance between American interests and values when it comes to Moscow, or will they allow themselves to be used by the various forces within Russia, where serious political struggle is just beginning? If the next U.S. administration does not rise above the, frankly, very mediocre general level of the post-Cold War U.S.-Russia policy, Washington will continue losing opportunities and limiting its options. A reset is not enough, and it cannot be repeated anyway. It is time for a re-think.