As U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term, IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza ponders whether there will now be a rethinking of the White House policy on Russia – or whether the administration will continue its “reset” with Vladimir Putin.
In his inaugural address this week, President Barack Obama pledged to “support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” Living up to this promise would require a serious shift in the White House’s “reset” policy toward Russia, which has been heavily criticized for its lack of principle, particularly by the human rights community.
In effect, President Obama’s “reset” was not with Russia as a country or a society, but with Vladimir Putin’s regime – a significant difference, given Russia’s repressive and antidemocratic political system.
The “reset” had the effect of giving Putin’s regime an aura of legitimacy and the status of a respectable partner on the world stage.
Some of the more notable manifestations of the “reset” have included a promise of “flexibility” on missile defense; a public rejection of linkage between trade and human rights, established in U.S. policy since the 1970s; and warm congratulations on Putin’s “election victory.” The OSCE, where the United States is a full member, assessed that vote somewhat differently: “There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.” In short, the “reset” had the effect of giving Putin’s regime an aura of legitimacy and the status of a respectable partner on the world stage.
The initial post-inauguration signals are not promising. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has indicated that President Obama wants to continue his current policy toward Russia. The president’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, is reportedly traveling to Moscow in the next few days with a mission to revive the “reset.” His itinerary includes a meeting with Vladimir Putin.
For now, though, the administration deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, changes in Russia policy have occurred in the second term under previous U.S. presidents. One may recall Obama’s immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, who began by actively courting Putin, praising him as “a new style of leader, a reformer… a man who is going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States,” and famously looking “the man in the eye” and getting “a sense of his soul.”
Bush’s second-term approach was markedly different – though that was more a reaction to the Kremlin’s increasingly provocative behavior than a serious philosophical reconsideration by Washington. To mention two examples, the U.S. president publicly condemned the politically motivated conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, emphasizing that “he had been adjudged guilty prior to having a fair trial,” and took a firm stand against the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia.
It is entirely possible that the current administration will also rethink its Russia policy. Indeed, if Putin’s decision to punish orphaned Russian children for a human rights law passed in the U.S. does not change the White House's attitude toward the Kremlin regime, nothing ever will.