There are a number of indications that Russia is fed up dealing with the United States. The Kremlin thinks the “reset” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed is a farce, and cannot believe anything that the United States — especially President Obama — says.
Yet the Russians seem to little will change if Mitt Romney is elected. In their minds, Obama is incompetent and Romney will be beholden to the right wing of his party — a group that sees the Russian hand behind everything negative in the world.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin began his first tenure as president believing he could “reset” U.S.-Russian relations in spite of the Bush administration’s less than friendly attitude toward Moscow. Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush after 9/11 and quickly grounded Russian planes at Bush’s request. Throughout the Bush administration, the Russians were frustrated at the unpredictable nature of the U.S. policy process. The White House would say one thing, the media criticize an agreement, then Congress says something else. (Representatives of other countries have this same complaint.)
Russia’s frustration was evident in a recent Der Spiegel interview with Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s confidants. Yakunin began by noting that “We’re on a dead-end road.” He told the German magazine that the United States and Russia face numerous common problems. During the Cold War, the nuclear balance of terror had the effect of creating stability. War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States was unthinkable.
Today the threat has changed — for both countries. We must avoid a war at all costs, even if it is between countries like Syria and Turkey. No one can predict where it would lead and how many hundreds of thousands would perish.
For Russia, the problem is that the Kremlin does not feel it can trust the United States. What happened with Libya is a prime example. The U.N. resolution, which Moscow supported, did not authorize an invasion. Russia would not have supported that. Yet the United States and some of its NATO partners invaded Libya, leaving Moscow on the sidelines.
Unfortunately, just as the Kremlin reads evil intent into Western actions, Washington reads evil intent into Russian ones, forgetting that the Kremlin may act for reasons that have nothing to do with the United States or NATO. To quote something often said in defense of American policy, it was “defending its national interest.”
Now we face a potential disaster in war between Syria and Turkey. According to Yakunin, Russia still believes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the support of most of the population. Moscow recognizes the bloodiness of the affair, but considers military intervention counterproductive.
As it is, the primary impact of Obama’s policies in the Middle East has been to increase the influence of the Islamists, who had been confined to the margins of society. If the rebels win in Syria, are we not creating a potential al-Qaeda state? Where would that end?
Besides, Yakunin continued, many Western politicians now see military intervention as a legitimate policy tool and have since the NATO strikes on Yugoslavia in the 1990s. “That’s how they intend to bring everyone into line who doesn’t share the Western view of democratization of society and the liberalization of the economy.”
“We have some experience in that area,” he continued. “The Soviet Union attempted to export communism to the entire world. We know what came of that. Now the West is trying to export democracy, including to regions where there is no traditional foundation for it. That cannot end well.”
The situation in Syria is dangerous and volatile. Russian aid to Assad may help at the margins, but I doubt it will solve Syria’s problems. Likewise, Yakunin had a point when he expressed concern that overthrowing dictators may have the opposite effect. Instead of leading to democracy, it can lead to instability and chaos as radical Islamists gain greater power, as appears to be happening in Egypt. That cannot be in anyone’s interest.
But neither the Russians nor the Americans are doing a good job of resolving the problem. Instead, we sit back and watch while thousands of people are killed. Even more upsetting, we could easily see this situation blow up in our collective faces.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.