Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.
The nature of this conversation, I think, misunderstands some key wagers behind the reset, as well as the realities of power politics in the 21st century.
Let’s begin with two key facts about the Russian Federation and its putative 19th century characteristics.
First, Russia’s political organization is fundamentally imperial in character, composed of a hodgepodge of political units that range from the fully integrated to the semi-sovereign and autonomous. As my colleague, Charles King, wrote in 2003:
“Central power, where it exists, is exercised through subalterns who function as effective tax- and ballot-farmers; they surrender up a portion of local revenue and deliver the votes for the center’s designated candidates in national elections in exchange for the center’s letting them keep their own fiefdoms.”
Nowhere is this kind of arrangement more vividly illustrated than in Chechnya, where Moscow ‘solved’ its separatist problem by devolving power to a local viceroy, Akhmed Kadyrov and, after his assassination, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Second, Moscow’s strategy for managing its internal relations — relying on subalterns, exploiting ethnic divisions, deploying military forces and using the toolkit of electoral authoritarianism — extends, if often in attenuated form, to those states it considers as falling within its “privileged sphere of influence.” It has long backed and leveraged secessionist movements in, among other places, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan in the pursuit of political control. Although not always successful, this pattern dates back to the Soviet era and, before that, the Russian Empire. Indeed, the Kremlin’s power-political practices are as perennial as they are limited. In a theoretically sophisticated Security Studies article, Iver B. Neumann and Vincent Pouliot show that Moscow’s quest for great-power status and recognition, combined with its inability to achieve “insider status” in the international order, invariably drives it back to the same repertoire of asserting great-power perquisites in ways that shock and alarm the international community. Did German Chancellor Angela Merkel describe Putin as living in “another world” after her March 2 phone conversation with him? If not, then sometimes truth does indeed reside in fiction.
Key players in the Russia reset understood this problem very well. Indeed, it shaped the fundamental wagers of the policy: That the Bush administration’s abandonment of normal diplomatic relations with Moscow — including the effective suspension of routine diplomatic and military-to-military engagement — served no one’s interests. At best, it did nothing to alter Russian international behavior. At worst, it exacerbated Russia’s tendency toward coercion and confrontation. It also allowed other countries to point the finger at Washington for “not doing enough to engage Russia” when Moscow reverted to type.
The Reset therefore proposed to “re-normalize” relations with Russia. Washington would engage Moscow in areas where their interests converged — such as Afghanistan and New START — and where the Obama administration judged greater alignment was possible — such as Iran. This stage proved difficult but productive. The reset stalled at its next stage — of building from this comparatively low-hanging fruit to more generalized cooperation. It failed completely in its ultimate objective: to nudge Moscow toward a ‘responsible stakeholder’ position in which it realized its great-power status without resorting to its default habits. At the same time, I am not sure how many officials in the Obama administration saw this last goal as anything but aspirational.
Russia’s intervention in Crimea highlights the fundamental problem with more ambitious aims of the reset. As its critics note, Washington’s approach to international order proved fundamentally incompatible with Moscow’s current worldview. Outcomes that Washington views as Pareto-improving look, from Moscow’s vantage point, as anything but. Additional nuclear-arms reductions? They lock in American conventional advantage while complicating the ability of Moscow to deter a rising China. Regime change in Syria? It removes one of the last powers in the Middle East friendly to Moscow. Democratization in Ukraine? The loss of influence in a territory core to Russia’s strategic interests and its great-power status.
What options, then, does the United States have when it comes to a grand strategy toward Russia? Some realists, such as Stephen Walt, suggest that Washington accommodate Russia’s sphere of influence while conserving its resources only for those challenges that represent an existential threat to the United States. This represents the genuine “19th century option.”
What establishment Washington critics recommend is something different entirely: That Washington engage in a kind of boisterous containment in which its maximizes power in order to show resolve to not only Russia, but other discontented regional powers, such a China. This is only “realist” in that it reflects some of the least credible concerns of 19th and 20th century power politics, including a dangerous obsession with generalized reputation.
However, the weight of political science research suggests that general reputations for resolve and strength matter, at best, at the margins. Instead, leaders focus on specifics: the credibility of a particular commitment, the balance of military forces and the balance of interests at stake. Indeed, as Jonathan Mercer argues: The real puzzle is why so many people, including leaders, spend so much time worrying about their general reputation for resolve when it makes so little difference in world affairs.