Today, the U.S. and Moscow share few common interests
The fate of controversial National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was recently granted asylum by the Kremlin, is of little importance. His case, however, shines a revealing spotlight on the true state of U.S.-Russian relations, and on the sorry state of American policy toward Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Russia's recent grant of asylum to Mr. Snowden is of a piece with its fundamental anti-Americanism, a situation that the Obama administration seems unable to accept as being either real or determinative of the true tenor of bilateral ties. Rather, the White House, for all of its recent, public disappointment with Moscow, still operates under the assumption that its "reset" policy is sound — and that there are areas of common interest with Russia whose importance overrides the myriad areas of discord that now predominate bilateral relations. Therefore, the logic goes, we should try to work with Russia on those common interests toward supposedly shared goals.
The track record says otherwise, however. President Obama's "reset" has garnered precious few tangible benefits to date. On those issues where progress has indeed been made — namely, Afghanistan and arms control — it has been Russia, rather than America, that has driven policy. Washington has simply adopted Moscow's agenda for arms control, resulting in the 2010 New START pact and follow-on discussions about nuclear reductions, and embraced its support for the Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan. We did so even though we failed to obtain enough lasting gains from that cooperation to justify continuing the policy.
Today, things are at a turning point. The United States is leaving Afghanistan in 2014, and Russia has resolutely opposed any attempt to maintain an American regional presence in Central Asia, or any U.S. efforts to help the countries of the region defend themselves from terrorist threats. Moscow likewise has joined with Tehran to thwart progress on a resolution to the long-running civil war in Syria. On arms control, the Russian government has rebuffed significant American concessions, such as the termination of planned missile defenses in Europe, and demanded still more reductions to our strategic arsenal, even as Moscow itself has continued to modernize its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities.
The glue holding together these initiatives is an overt and systematic anti-Americanism on the part of the Kremlin, one that is deliberately disseminated by a subservient state-controlled media. Likewise, the absence of democratic control over Russia's intelligence and military services enables these organizations to fabricate worst-case scenarios against the United States, which Moscow accuses of seeking to undermine or even divide Russia and its neighbors.
Yet it is Russia that is actually seeking to do just that. Russian foreign policy today is a neo-imperial effort to undermine the sovereignty, if not the integrity, of its former Soviet partners and current neighbors. It is clear that Mr. Putin and his followers think that Russia can only be a great power if its neighbors are subservient client states whose independence is merely nominal.
What then is the basis for the White House to think that there are common interests? Presidential summits are useful only when both sides want to make deals which need to be formalized or resolved at the highest levels of leadership. Absent such agreements or common interests, there is no basis for a summit, even if Mr. Snowden had never existed. It is perhaps that realization that caused Mr. Obama to table his planned meeting in Moscow with Mr. Putin prior to next week's Group of 20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg.
However, America needs to do still more. A sober defense of U.S. interests mandates that the president and his advisers rethink the "reset" policy as a whole. As recent events have shown, and as critics of the administration have long maintained, it is fiction to think that Moscow will work together with Washington on the basis of "common interests," since Russia has made patently clear that it does not, in fact, think that such interests exist.
The sooner the Obama administration recognizes this reality, and pursues a more sober policy toward Russia, the better.
Stephen Blank is senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council.
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