The Obama administration’s inability to correctly translate the word “reset” into Russian at the early March meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a diplomatic faux pas that, while humorous, captured the serious problem with their plan for Russian rapprochement - the new policy fails to understand the real Russia.
To be sure, engaging Russia should be a priority of any administration; it is, after all, a once-great and now-re-emerging power. It should not be the first priority beyond all others, however.
Any bilateral engagement with Russia that places strategic arms control and missile defense on the table needs to come with a clear understanding of Russian behavior and on the heels of substantive consultation with our NATO allies. This is not simply a matter of alliance etiquette. Rather, attempts to include Russia within Europe’s collective security umbrella runs the risk of fostering collective insecurity among our allies. In other words, secret letters act largely to reinforce alliance anxiety.
With all the noise about policy shifts and breaks from previous Bush policies, there seems to be scant to no regard for what Russia actually says. This risks falling into the classic trap of failing to see Russia as it is in favor of what we want it to be.
By now, Russia’s misdeeds and provocations are well known and too readily dismissed. During the last year, Russia has pursued a divisive policy to re-exert its Soviet-era sphere of influence. Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August was the most prominent example.
Advocates of a “reset” policy with Russia attempt to explain away Russian behavior by pointing to Bush-era heavy-handed policies, such as support of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Others suggest that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons trumps other interests. While few would disagree that the Iranian nuclear weapons program may be President Obama’s greatest national security test, I seriously doubt the road to solving the Iranian nuclear program primarily runs through Moscow.
So what do we risk by making a grand bargain with Russia? Nothing less than the viability of the security architecture that has kept the European continent peaceful for nearly 60 years. Listen to what Russian leaders say. In my opinion, they explain their own behavior better than do many Washington policy experts.
At the World Economic Forum in January, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned, “Let us be frank: Provoking military-political instability and other regional conflicts is also a convenient way of deflecting people’s attention from mounting social and economic problems. Regrettably, further attempts of this kind cannot be ruled out.” Mr. Putin apparently meant other states would deflect internal instability by pursuing adventurism abroad.
Of course, history teaches that Russia itself is often prone to this type of behavior. This may explain the Kremlin’s recent plans for military modernization in order to deal with local crises and answer attempts to expand NATO’s military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.
It is precisely Russia’s borders that should concern the United States and its allies. After all, deference to Russia’s “near abroad” turns on one’s definition of the word “near.” Historically, Russia’s understanding of the term included much of the landmass of Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia.
A prime example of how comments by Russian leaders fit into a strategic framework is the Kremlin’s proposed European Security Treaty. The Russian plan calls for a new security arrangement to govern relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community. In other words, Russia seeks to weaken NATO, marginalize U.S. influence in Europe and gain a veto over European security affairs.
In this light, allied skepticism and concern over the Obama administration’s engagement is warranted. Moreover, it requires us to pursue policies that demonstrate U.S. leadership in trans-Atlantic security:
• Before engaging in strategic arms control negotiations with Russia, the United States needs to affirm its commitment to collective security, including extended nuclear deterrence and missile defense. This is the least we can do for allies like Poland and the Czech Republic.
• We need to adjust our footprint in Europe. Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who is supreme Allied commander for NATO and commander of the United States European Command, has indicated that reductions in the overall force structure in Europe will impede the United States from militarily engaging with our partner nations. If reductions continue of U.S. force levels in Europe, our Eastern European allies - those with the most to lose from a reassertive Russia - will be supported by forces from the continental United States. In this light, can this be the appropriate time to ramp down our forces in Europe?
• Finally, there is the matter of securing the sovereignty of democratic states. Russia may seek a veto over the foreign policy of its neighbors, but this cannot come at a cost of forfeiting the democratic integrity of our friends and allies. The point is distorted by opponents of our supporting Georgia or Ukraine on the grounds that we must disavow conflict with Russia over countries beyond our national security orbit. No reasonable person would advocate such brinksmanship.
What the United States should do - and what we must do as a moral authority for human freedom around the world - is reaffirm our support for emerging democratic states seeking to exercise sovereignty and represent their peoples’ interests. This is the foundation of NATO’s common defense clause.
Now that Foggy Bottom has pressed the reset button, these principles must not be abandoned.
John M. McHugh, New York Republican, is ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.