Why Obama must get tougher on Putin
State friendships are built upon common interests and shared ideals. It's strange, then, that so many commentators have reacted with shock to the new Russian law banning adoptions to American families. In today's geopolitical landscape, Russia and America simply do not share interests and ideals. And yet, for years President Obama had been showered with praise for his supposed warming of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Unfortunately, in substantive terms, this warming has been fictional. Vladimir Putin's Russia is no friend of America. The hard reality is that during Obama's first term, Russia has been an unrepentant U.S. adversary. And where Russia has gained much from Obama, the U.S. has achieved little in return.
Over the next four years, Obama needs a new Russian strategy; the "reset" obsession needs to go. "Resolve" must become the new theme for American policy towards Russia.
Entering office, Obama's "reset" ambitions were eminently reasonable. As the last administration came to end, George W. Bush resorted to using the U.S. military to pressure Putin to end his invasion of Georgia. Not exactly a happy closing chapter for a once hopeful relationship. Obama was right to try and improve the situation, but in his sustained patience he has played into Putin's hands. While many foreign policy observers have taken satisfaction from the post-Bush turn towards multilateralism and away from arrogance, in Russia's emboldened actions, gratification has come at a high price. Over the past four years, whether pulling Dmitri Medvedev's strings or in seizing the presidency for himself, Putin has reinforced an aggressive, anti-American foreign policy.
Consider the record. With both indirect and direct Russian support, Iran continues its nuclear pursuits. (It ought to go without saying that a nuclear Iran would be a disaster for the region and for international security.) In eastern Europe, Russia employs its energy export industry as a weapon of greed and a tool for political blackmail. In western Europe, close allies of the Russian president are suspected of assassination plots. In 2006, a Putin critic was assassinated in London. Across Europe, Russia is using its recent WTO accession to its own advantage, while simultaneously reneging on its membership obligations. In Syria, Russia continues to prop up the Assad regime, providing the dictator with diplomatic cover and a steady supply of weapons to enable his continuing massacres.
Putin's foreign policy views the norms of international relations, humanitarian law, and respect for democracy as nothing but obstacles inhibiting Putin's raw pursuit of power. These obstacles aren't only to be hurdled, but to be crushed.
And tragically, it isn't just abroad where Putin has rejected the spirit of Obama's overtures. Consider his domestic policies. In banning adoptions to the U.S., Putin is now using Russian children as political pawns. Faced with a Russian social care system that is exceptionally poor, adoptions to America answer a deep moral need. Putin doesn't care. This is simply an opportunity to bully Obama deeper into submission. Sadly, as Obama's cancelation of the missile defense shield indicates, Putin has often been successful in this endeavor.
Indeed, what has the U.S. gained from its conciliatory policy? The unpleasant answer: A nuclear arms control treaty that Russia probably would have supported anyway. The United States and the world are badly served by our current Russia policy. We have a highly capable ambassador in Moscow. We need a tough policy to match. In this regard, there are a number of steps that Obama must take.
First, he should stand more firmly in support of our eastern European allies. He can start by embracing outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar's energy export plan. Second, Obama should openly and aggressively condemn Russian support for dictators and authoritarian domestic practices. Third, he should build upon the Magnitsky Act, isolating corrupt Russian officials from the U.S. financial system. In short, Obama must begin to stand up to Putin. Our international interests and ideals demand it. Before the November election, Obama promised Russia greater "flexibility" if he was able to win re-election. That was a mistake. The president needs to situate his second term Russia policy in a much greater clarity of purpose. Obama must end Putin's holiday. The Russian president has eaten enough American carrots. If necessary, Obama should be ready to offer the stick.