Obama's 'Reset' Feeds Russian Bear's Resurgence

President Obama has promised to “reset” relations with Moscow to find new ways to cooperate. 

While Washington and Moscow are cooperating to a degree, Russia is leveraging the new relationship to accelerate its dangerous resurgence at America’s expense. 

Under President Bush, Russia perceived the U.S. objective was to make Russia weaker by surrounding her with a missile-defense system, expanding NATO despite Russia’s objections and manipulating Moscow’s allies against her interests.

At the same time Putin has reasserted Soviet-era control to a shocking degree through Russian actions against Georgia, Ukraine and Estonia. These actions combined to sour relations with the United States, but Obama’s “reset” policy reversed that trend to produce short-term fruit.

Over the past year Russia cooperated on several fronts. Its rhetoric concerning NATO expansion has toned down and Moscow granted U.S. access to Afghanistan via its air space to deliver war supplies. Moscow is now willing to engage with the United States on constructive ways to reduce Iran’s nuclear threat and last week signed a nuclear arms treaty, significantly reducing our mutual strategic arsenals.

Many Caveats

Moscow’s new cooperation has come with costs and raises many caveats about removing our European ground-based missile system, establishing “limits” for sanctions against Iran and an “opt out” clause for the arms treaty.

The pregnant question for Obama is whether his “reset” policy has unacceptable long-term costs that advance Moscow’s resurgence—geopolitical, military and economic—at America’s expense.

First, Russia is resurging geopolitically by coercing former satellites. These countries are backpedaling because they see the Kremlin’s taking advantage of Obama’s naïve doctrine of non-interference cum charm offensive by reverting to its old school authoritarian ways. 

Warnings to Obama

The Kremlin looks at relations with its neighbors as a “zone of privileged interests”—largely in zero-sum terms, vis-à-vis the West. Former East European leaders Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, who understand Russia’s authoritarian ways, warned Obama in a letter about Russia’s intentions and its coercive tools.

In 2009 they wrote that Russia “uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests.” Consider how Russia is applying this formula to its former satellites.

Kyrgyzstan Role

Russia played a to-be-determined role in the recent ouster of Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The toppling of Bakiyev raises doubts about the future of a U.S. air base at the Manas International Airport, which is a critical logistical hub for NATO troops in Afghanistan. Last year, Russia failed to persuade Bakiyev to close Manas to the Americans, which might explain Moscow’s suspected role in Bakeyev’s ouster.

Not surprisingly Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin quickly endorsed Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, condemned the ousted Bakiyev and offered the Kremlin’s support to the new regime. Moscow then sent 150 paratroopers to one of its five military installations near the capital and Stratfor, an American intelligence service, reports that intelligence agents from the Russian Federal Security Service were seen in Kyrgyzstan’s capital soon after the ouster.

Russia’s interference in Kyrgyzstan is just one example of Moscow’s taking aggressive actions against its neighbors.

Moldova, Europe’s only Communist regime, was starting to lean to the West. Last year, Russia gave $500 million to Moldova’s Communist party and used Russian-owned companies in Moldova and the Moscow-run media to influence parliamentary elections. The republic erupted in violence as anti-Communist demonstrators protested what they said were rigged elections but The Party of Communists won, which cemented Russia’s influence.

Moscow was losing its grip on Ukraine after the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004. But Russia started playing hardball in 2006 by cutting off energy supplies to force Kiev to be more compliant and to distance itself from calls for NATO membership. This January, after exercising considerable political and economic leverage, a pro-Russian government returned to Kiev. Former Prime Minister and 2010 presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko said the recent election was a missed “chance to become a worthy member of the European family and to put an end to the rule of the oligarchy.”

In 2008, Russia invaded two Republic of Georgia secessionist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to stop that country’s Westward drift. Last week, Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov was in South Ossetia to sign a defense agreement.

“The Russian Federation, by signing this agreement, obviously assumes full responsibility for the defense of South Ossetia,” Serdyukov said. Russia signed a similar deal with Abkhazia on February 17 and now the tiny country is split between Russia and the pro-West government in Tbilisi. 

Expect Moscow to start focusing on other states like former satellites along the Baltic—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—which are NATO and European Union members. It’s already leveraging Poland via a natural gas deal and the leader of Slovakia, a key natural-gas transit country for Russia, told Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, “Slovakia has always been and will remain Russia’s ally and reliable partner.”

Second, Russia’s military resurgence is serious and Moscow got some unexpected help from Obama’s “reset” policy. Last week, Obama signed the new arms treaty which makes America’s atomic arsenal equal to Russia’s, thus saving Moscow defense money and limiting America’s global umbrella.

Moscow doesn’t need any help, however. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified Russia is “implementing its most serious military reform plans in half a century and ultimately aims to shed the legacy of the Soviet mass mobilization army and create a leaner, more professional, more high-tech force over the next several years.”

Russia’s Power Trip

The transformation started in 2007, after a 16-year hiatus, when Russia resumed the use of heavy bomber patrols, out-of-area naval deployments and joint exercises with the People’s Republic of China. Its intention is to send a message that Russia is back as a great power and its activities are expanding.

Russia launched a sweeping $200 billion rearmament program that aims to introduce new generations of nuclear submarines, intercontinental missiles, tanks and aircraft carriers. Its arms procurement program anticipates boosting the share of advanced military equipment to 70% by 2020, which translates into more than 1,500 new combat aircraft. 

Recently Moscow announced the flight test of a fifth-generation fighter, an indication the regime hasn’t lost its taste for high-tech systems. The stealth aircraft with sustained supersonic cruise and integrated weapons and navigation systems is intended to match the U.S. F-22 Raptor, which the Obama Administration failed to fund in the current defense budget. 

Armament advancements are being matched by a new military doctrine. In February, Russia published a doctrine that identified NATO enlargement as its main external military danger and declared Russia’s right to use military force beyond its borders. It also stated it will use nuclear weapons to prevent “nuclear military conflict or any other military conflict” and kept first-use nuclear strikes as an option. That’s a far cry from Obama’s new Nuclear Posture Review, which won’t consider nuclear weapons for any purpose other than responding to a nuclear attack.

Third, Russia is economically resurgent and wants the United States to help. Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecasts Russia’s economy is poised for a 7% growth rate, the “biggest bounce” in the world this year as companies rebuild stocks and resurgent consumer demand boosts output. But Russia remains slavishly dependent on energy income.

Intelligence Director Blair said Russia “is benefiting from the recent completion of several major [energy] projects—some operated by foreign companies—but depletion rates in fields now producing makes further gains unlikely absent changes to spur development of new fields.” That’s why Russia desperately needs foreign investment and technology.

It found some help in Europe. Russia’s energy company Gazprom is developing the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea with French, German and Dutch firms. First delivery of the gas should take place in 2011, providing an alternative route for Russian gas outside of Ukraine, and fueling Russia’s influence, renewing its stream of income and tapping into Western technology.

But Russia needs to diversify its economy to survive long-term. Medvedev recently called on Obama to increase Russian-U.S. economic cooperation and stressed Russia needs to learn from U.S. modernization of its economy. It’s not clear whether Obama’s “reset” policy will help Russia diversify, but given past actions that wouldn’t be a surprise. 

Russia’s resurgence is dangerous but it’s not clear Obama understands Moscow is leveraging his “reset” policy at America’s expense.