“Reset” with Russia, One Year On

U.S. policy toward the Kremlin has rarely been a partisan issue. The division lies between those who advocate deals with a repressive regime and those who understand that common interests require common values. It is hard to name a policy convergence between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, yet when it came to the role of human rights in U.S.-Soviet relations they stood in remarkable agreement. President Carter welcomed the recently-expelled Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky for a meeting at the White House. President Reagan famously presented Mikhail Gorbachev with a list of Soviet political prisoners during their first meeting at Reykjavik. Incidentally, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan successfully pursued arms control negotiations (resulting in SALT II and INF treaties) while speaking out on human rights. In those days, the two issues were not considered mutually exclusive.

Last spring a bipartisan group on U.S.-Russian relations, better known by the names of its Republican and Democratic co-chairs as the Hagel-Hart Commission, presented the Obama administration with a set of recommendations. Simply put, the commission advised that the U.S. abstain from putting pressure on the Kremlin over its authoritarian domestic policies and abandon further NATO expansion in return for Moscow’s support on the Iranian nuclear issue and on a START successor treaty.

Apart from the questionable morality of overtures to a regime that suppresses peaceful opposition rallies, muzzles the media and stage-manages elections, such an approach is strikingly naive. History has shown an inextricable link between domestic and international conduct. Repressive regimes view concessions as a sign of weakness, not a cause for reciprocity. Why would a government that is dishonest and aggressive to its own citizens behave like a noble and trustworthy partner on the world stage? Sure enough, the suppression of domestic freedoms under Vladimir Putin was followed by a more hostile behavior abroad.

Whatever its true intentions, the “reset” declared by President Obama was taken by the Kremlin (and by many in the Russian human rights community) as a sign of retreat from the “difficult” issues. Values appeared to be relegated to a third-tier status. Lev Ponomarev, a prominent activist, who took part in a recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recalled that she did not offer criticism of the situation in Russia. In a speech last December Mrs. Clinton said that human rights should be discussed “behind closed doors”the best way to ensure that they are not discussed seriously. Indeed, after last summer’s meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin the Russian premier’s adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told journalists that human rights “were not discussed at all.”

Predictably, Moscow’s opposition to increased sanctions on Iran has not softened, while the START treaty expired without an agreement on its successor. Russian negotiators are resisting U.S. inspections at the missile plant in Votkinsk.

The jury on U.S. policy may still be out. The administration’s Russia team includes advocates of a more comprehensive approach. During his visit to Moscow last July Mr. Obama did something no U.S. president has done in over a decadehe met not only with government officials, but also with their political opponents, including leaders of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov. With this gesture, Mr. Obama acknowledged what some “realists” too often seem to forgetthat Russia is not limited to the regime in the Kremlin. And that the current regime will not be there forever.

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