After a last-minute push by the Obama administration, the Senate finally ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with the surprising support of thirteen Republicans. Despite the concerted opposition of almost all of the Republican leadership, the main achievement of the U.S.-Russian “reset” of relations survived, but the treaty debate nonetheless weakened the reset approach politically in the United States. Last week, the former Yukos executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted at the end of his politically motivated trial, which gave opponents of the reset a new occasion to claim vindication. Connecting Khodorkovsky’s trial to U.S.-Russian relations is just the latest episode in the two-year campaign to judge the reset approach by impossibly high standards in order to pronounce it a failure.

Sen. John McCain has been a longstanding advocate of several confrontational policies aimed at Russia, not least of which has been the effort to continue NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. During the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, which independent observers have determined was largely the fault of the Georgian government, McCain rashly declared, “We are all Georgians now,” and in a recent speech urged the resumption of arms sales to Georgia and denounced the post-war Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During the treaty debate, he cited the Khodorkovsky trial as proof that Moscow could not trusted, as if the trial had anything to do with a bilateral treaty. By dragging in irrelevant issues and encouraging clashes between the U.S. and Russia over tangential disputes, such as Georgia, McCain tried to scuttle the arms reduction treaty and generally seems intent on derailing U.S.-Russian rapprochement. 

McCain claims to seea profound connection between the Russian government’s authoritarian actions at home and its aggressive behavior abroad,” which might be worth taking seriously as a matter of U.S. foreign policy if there were much substance to the latter charge. In reality, the only real evidence of Russia’s “aggressive behavior abroad” is the military presence it has built up in the territories that the Georgian government has vowed to “reintegrate” into Georgia over the objections of the majority of inhabitants of the separatist states.  These are separatist territories that have been under de facto Russian protection and control for the better part of twenty years following the conflicts of the early 1990s, and their claims to independence are no better and no worse than Kosovo’s.

Indeed, the precedent of Western recognition of Kosovo provided Russia with both the provocation and pretext to separate these territories permanently from Georgia. In many respects, the Russian response in 2008 was a conscious imitation of NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia, and the Russian presence in these territories has been a form of retribution for the forcible separation and recognition of Kosovo. Just as the U.S. and our European allies are not going to accept the return of Serbian control over Kosovo in the future, Georgia and its Western supporters need to understand that the Russian “occupation” of these territories will not be coming to an end, regardless of the status of U.S.-Russian relations. Judging any U.S. policy towards Russia on whether or not it can end the Russian presence in these territories is to make success impossible by definition. 

McCain and other opponents have been attempting to discredit the reset because it has failed to establish the rule of law in Russia, which it would never be able to do, and because it has not achieved the impossible of removing Russian forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Using the same faulty logic, Russian hard-liners might complain that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s engagement with the U.S. has been a waste of time because he has not pushed the U.S. out of Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan and has not reversed U.S. policy towards Iran. In recent column, Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan listed two main problems for judging the “reset” in just such an unreasonable way: “What to do about Russia's continued illegal occupation of Georgia; how to handle Russia's increasingly authoritarian domestic behavior, its brutal treatment of internal dissent and its squelching of all democratic institutions.” What Kagan describes as a “tougher test of the reset” is nothing less than the abandonment of it.

Hectoring Russia over its internal behavior did nothing during the Bush years to improve the treatment of dissenters and journalists, but it did undermine relations with a strategically valuable major power. Tying U.S.-Russian relations to disputes involving Georgia took the relationship to a post-Cold War low, and the same would happen if the administration began pressuring Moscow on this issue again. Neither the reset nor hawkish confrontation is going to compel changes in all of the Russian policies that Americans oppose, but only one of them is likely to secure Russian cooperation on matters of vital interest to the United States. There are limitations to the reset, just as there are limits to American power, and it is time that we began to understand the limited successes we should reasonably expect from U.S. foreign policy.