Obama Needs a Second Term Course Correction on Russia

The Obama administration should stand up to Vladimir Putin and protect the liberal international order that the United States helped to create.

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Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.

One of President Obama's signature foreign policy initiatives was an attempt to engage the rogue and illiberal regimes in Tehran, Damascus, Beijing, and Moscow. These attempts at rapprochement generally met with little success, but the effort known as the "Russia Reset" yielded a few policy gains that the Obama administration could take credit for. However, Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency effectively marked the end of this brief springtime in relations between Moscow and Washington. In his second term, President Obama should recognize that the Reset reaped few real results, was deeply misguided in some aspects, and take a harder line with Moscow in his second term.

Reset's Rewards Less Than Advertised

The Obama administration has emphasized the gains of the Reset—namely, the New START treaty to reduce U.S. and Russia strategic nuclear arms and overflight rights for the U.S. military to resupply the war in Afghanistan—in their public statements. However, given the enormous amount of attention that President Obama paid to Moscow in his first term, these gains are relatively paltry.

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New START's terms obliges the United States to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, whereas Russia can fulfill its requirements by simply retiring antiquated systems that it cannot afford to sustain. Furthermore, Russia won a strategic gain vis-à-vis the United States by establishing that it would withdraw if the United States pursued an expanded missile defense program. This pressures the Obama administration to keep America's missile defense system—which Russia views as a threat to its strategic strength—small and limited if it wishes to maintain the treaty, and allows Moscow to save money by keeping only its most modern systems in service. In addition, despite increased financial and diplomatic pressure on Tehran, Iran continues to stall for time in international negotiations, and has made alarming progress in its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. Furthermore, even though the crisis in Syria has claimed more than 60,000 lives and internally displaced more than 2.5 million people, Russia still has not called on Bashar al-Assad to step down. Until Russia places real pressure on Damascus to do so, there will be no transition of any sort away from the brutal regime.

In 2010, President Obama decided to advance a controversial U.S.-Russian civil nuclear cooperation agreement that President Bush had withdrawn from congressional consideration to protest Moscow's war with Georgia in 2008. Russia still maintains forces in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia four and a half years after it signed a ceasefire that required it to withdraw, and has attempted to turn those territories into satellite states by supporting pro-Russia candidates in their elections. By allowing the U.S.-Russian civil nuclear cooperation agreement to proceed, the Obama administration, in effect, rewarded continuing Russian belligerence, and forfeited vital leverage to compel Moscow to pull out of Georgian territory.

Russia's Human Rights Abuses Continue

Under fierce pressure from Congress, the Obama administration did allow the Magnitsky Act to be linked to awarding Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia. The Magnitsky Act—the most important human rights legislation since the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that it replaces—applies travel and banking sanctions against Russian officials believed to be complicit in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year old lawyer who attempted to spotlight large scale corruption but died while he was imprisoned without a trial.

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Since the Magnitsky Act was signed into law, Russia has angrily responded by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans—a particularly cruel maneuver that has injected new energy into the country's opposition movement. Sadly, such behavior is all too common for Vladimir Putin. As Freedom House noted in its Freedom in the World 2012 report, Putin has pushed since his return to power "a series of laws meant to restrict public protest, limit the work of NGOs, and inhibit free expression on the internet. The regime also forced the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to end its work in Russia, and has severely hampered the ability of foreign broadcasters to reach the Russian audience."

Time to Change Course

Under President Obama, the United States has been too willing to advance policies that reward Russia without an in-kind gain for the United States, or to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin's bad behavior. Having been seasoned in their failure to persuade Putin to abandon his autocratic tendencies, the Obama administration should take a harder line in their relations with Moscow. In a commendable first step, the United States has withdrawn from a civil-society working group to protest Putin's recent actions.

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To build on this progress, it is critical that the Obama administration actually use the Magnitsky Act's provision to name-and-shame and impose sanctions on Russian government officials who violate basic human rights. As Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov recently noted, "Taking aim at the apparatchiks [with the Magnitsky Act] can shake the entire Kremlin power structure." Indeed, doing so would also clearly signal America's support and solidarity with the stifled and suffering Russian opposition movement.

More generally, the Obama administration should not let the Kremlin hold hostage its foreign policy on key issues like Iran's nuclear program, Syria's spiraling internal crisis, or expanding missile defense to protect the U.S. homeland and allies from Iran's and North Korea's emerging missile threats. So long as Vladimir Putin persists in undermining the liberal international order that the United States helped to create and seeks to sustain, the Obama administration should stand up to this strongman—not press the "reset" button again.

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