The Realist Prism: Obama Must Choose What Comes Next for U.S.-Russia

It’s safe to say that the U.S.-Russia reset is now dead and buried. It was already losing steam, in part because the low-hanging fruit it offered had already been harvested—and because many of the “concessions” made by both sides at the high point of the reset in 2010 and 2011 were decisions that Moscow or Washington would have taken anyway. The Obama administration’s decision, for instance, to cancel the Bush administration’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was guided as much by concerns about cost and technical infeasibility as it was about improving ties with Russia. Moscow’s decision, in turn, to expand the Northern Distribution Network supplying U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan was taken not simply as a gesture of good will to the West but because it was both profitable for Russian companies and served Moscow’s security interests in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the reset provided a useful framework for thinking about the relationship. It is not clear, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, what will replace it—but there can be no return to the status quo ante.

Right now, as the Crimean standoff continues, the U.S. has canceled joint military exercises and is not planning to attend the G-8 summit President Vladimir Putin was to host later this spring in Sochi. In moving forward, the Obama administration will have to decide which of its two competing—and contradictory—narratives about Russia it will use as the central organizing principle for relations with Moscow. If it still believes that, on the whole, Russia is a necessary partner for the United States and that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs of confrontation, then it is best served by following the advice that former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, analyst Anatol Lieven and others have provided: Remove Ukraine as a subject for geopolitical competition by formalizing its status as a “neutral” state lying between the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian zones. The reset could only work as long as Ukraine was not a particular bone of contention, and in Brzezinski’s formulation, the outcome should be a Ukraine that enjoys “wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.” If the administration agrees, then it might be possible to rebuild a working relationship with Russia.

On the other hand, if the administration believes that the regime in Russia is fundamentally illegitimate, that Russia has no legitimate security or economic concerns about countries like Ukraine forging closer ties with the West and that the United States will stand by its rhetoric that countries should have the absolute freedom to choose their international associations, then it should be prepared to act accordingly. It should devote the necessary resources and set the roadmap to bring Ukraine—and other Eurasian states that so desire—into Western institutions and work to reshape the Eurasian political and economic balance of power. Moreover, if one believes that the success of the revolution against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine will be the catalyst for triggering political change in Russia, then preventing that revolution from being reversed would be a policy interest for Washington. This might lead the administration to adopt policies advocated by former Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis and others for avoiding a direct clash with Russia but otherwise working to “deter Moscow from aggression through signals of collective military strength,” as Tom Fedysyn describes.

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