No More Resets With Russia

Washington should not talk itself into accepting Moscow’s aggression—again.

By Kurt Volker 12 August 2020

Most critics say U.S. President Donald Trump is too soft on Russia and unwilling to criticize it or Russian President Vladimir Putin—for example, on election interference, placing a bounty on the killing of U.S. soldiers, or continuing aggression in Ukraine. It is striking, therefore, to see a large number of experienced and respected U.S. foreign-policy experts criticize the administration’s approach to Russia as too hard-line, calling instead in an open letter for a “rethink” of U.S.-Russia policy.

The argument for rethinking Russia policy arises with surprising regularity. U.S. President George W. Bush took office in 2001 seeking to build a fresh relationship with the newly elected Putin, famously saying he got “a sense of his soul” during a meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia. By the end of Bush’s tenure in January 2009, however, his understanding of Putin had changed. The year before, Putin had orchestrated a sham role-swap with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in order to stay in power. That came after a long list of other troubling activities, including, among other things, selling radars to Iraq as the United States was ramping up pressure on Saddam Hussein, recklessly murdering the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London, driving a wedge between NATO allies over missile defense, supporting Iran’s supposedly civilian nuclear program, and stopping implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In August 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. In response, NATO suspended the NATO-Russia Council, which Russia had long stopped taking seriously anyway.

Despite that record, President Barack Obama came into office hoping for a “reset” with Russia, to the dismay of Georgia, whose territory remained occupied, as well as U.S. allies in the Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech Republic, who feared further Russian aggression. The administration’s decision on Sept. 17, 2009—the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939—to seek greater cooperation with Russia by rewriting U.S. missile defense plans further shocked Polish and Czech allies.

The result? By 2014, Russia had illegally seized Crimea from Ukraine, started a war in eastern Ukraine, and supported Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks on his own people. Moscow later fudged a pledge to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, increased spying on the United States, attempted a coup in Montenegro, buzzed U.S. naval ships with fighter aircraft, interfered in U.S. elections, and attempted to murder the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon in the United Kingdom. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia beginning in 2014. So much for a reset.

Like his predecessors, and despite Russia’s behavior, Trump has also sought to keep a hand outstretched to the country. Even at the risk of appearing to support accusations of collusion with Russia, Trump has attempted to convey that the United States is prepared for a better relationship if and when Russian behavior improves. But in contrast to its predecessors, the administration has also pushed back hard on Russia from the beginning—for example, through additional sanctions; lethal arms assistance to Ukraine; cuts to Russia’s diplomatic presence in the United States to reduce opportunities for Russian espionage; increased military exercises and training with Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states; calling out Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and the forward-positioning of some U.S. forces in Poland and Romania.

But Russian behavior has still not changed. In 2020, Russia’s war in Ukraine continues. The country still occupies part of Georgia, has continued confrontations with the United States over Venezuela and Syria, reportedly paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers, and continues to try to interfere in elections in the United States and Europe. Domestically, Putin has cracked down on opposition and the media, and paved the way to extend his rule until at least 2036.

Against this history of Russian aggression and despite multiple attempts by U.S. administrations to work together, it is therefore stunning that, as the United States enters another presidential election, arguments are again surfacing for yet another reset with Russia, be it in a second Trump term or a first term for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

The fundamental fallacy in such an argument is to believe that U.S. policies drive Putin’s actions. They don’t.

Authors of the open letter argue that we must deal with Russia “as it is.” Indeed we must. Russia “as it is” is an increasingly authoritarian state determined to act aggressively against its neighbors, extend its disruptive influence in the Middle East and Asia, and strategically weaken and divide Europe and NATO.

By the end of each of the last few U.S. administrations, the presidents became convinced that pushing back against Russia was essential. Rather than rethinking that stance at the start of a new presidential term, it is time to recognize that Russia is aggressive for its own reasons. Instead of a reset, the West needs the patience to apply consistent and steady pressure against Russian aggression, and to support those in Russia and in neighboring states who seek freedom, democracy, and security. For once, it is time for Russia, not the West, to rethink its policy.

12 comments

  • A good article by a man of integrity. Inevitably it doesn’t go far enough, or carry any weight, or stand much chance of getting into mainstream policy.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Good job Volker! It’s good to hear someone else say what I’ve carried on saying for the last 3 years.

      “Trump has attempted to convey that the United States is prepared for a better relationship if and when Russian behavior improves. But in contrast to its predecessors, the administration has also pushed back hard on Russia from the beginning.”

      Liked by 4 people

      • Volker has integrity and is a good friend of Ukraine. He reported that in private conversations with Trump he made only disparaging remarks about Ukraine yet never had a bad word to say about putler.
        Bolton then consolidated that by reporting his own experience with Trump. The excoriating language used was almost identical to what Volker had reported previously.

        Liked by 3 people

  • The past several presidents have made shambles of our foreign policies. I had some hope things would change with the Trumpet until his love for Pootin became obvious.
    It is thanks only to our Congress that we have responded with anything that resembles steadfastness against the crime syndicate and which has made efforts to help the likes of Ukraine. It is incomprehensible that a guy who calls himself president of the United States, the top political position in the world, would, could, and is ignoring so much aggression from the Russia, aimed at the free world and in particular at its neighbors and breaking so many international laws and agreements. Why, now we have a president who downright protects this sort of behavior. This president, in this regard, is shameful and an embarrassment.
    We have no choice but to revamp our foreign policies. It is not only because of mafia land. What if China’s Xi starts acting like Putin? I’m surprised that he hasn’t yet.
    However, foreign policy is in the back-burner. Seeing the dire troubles at home, it is no wonder. The virus, the smashed economy and the idiotic racial riots have top priority. And, I’m afraid that things will be no better with slow Joe in the Oval Office. This is unfortunate for Ukraine. But, at least some in our Congress are still keeping an eye on things.

    Liked by 4 people

  • We are facing multiple threats, not a single threat. RuSSia, Turkey, China, North Korea, Iran and the german appeasers pose a core threat to our civilization. We need a russophobe Le Pen, but we don’t have one. As long as radical right-wingers are pro-Putin and anti-climate, we stay doomed. Also ruSSian trolls on Twitter & co. pose a real threat, since they continue to influence politicians and their followers.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Even if Le Pen was not a putler jackboot licker, she would still be a pig. What you need as POTUS is someone who understands the threats you list and also has combat experience. John McCain fitted the bill. There is one who happily is still with us: Col Allen West.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Right-wingers are pro-putin? What?

      Liked by 2 people

      • They are though. I’m sure you don’t want to see my endless list of them again?!
        In Europe it’s the same pattern. Wilders, Le Pen, Farage, Conte, Kurz, Orban etc.

        Liked by 3 people

        • There are a lot of Right-wingers that aren’t pro-putin too. By far most. Besides that, the left has been historically pro-putin so that argument holds little if any water if we’re being honest.

          Liked by 3 people

          • My dear fellow, you always have my support! But you have an irrational blind spot re Trumpkov and I speak as a person who for patriotic reasons wants him to win! In fact I wouldn’t mind him at all if it were not for the crazy putler groveling!
            The GOP is anti-putler, no question. However, Trump has established such a powerful bridgehead of putler jackboot lickers in the party that they are lobbying for Tucker ‘Im rooting for Russia’ Carlson to run in 2024.
            Consider the following patriotic Republicans : McCain, Romney, Rubio, Bolton, Mattis and Mike’s man Ted. What do they have in common? They were insulted and abused by Trump in a form of aggressive language not seen in senior political circles since who knows when? All because of their condemnation of putler. Apart from the McCain outrage, he even accused Cruz’s dad of being complicit in the murder of JFK!
            Contrast that with the horde of filthy putler shills that Trump surrounds himself with. If one goes to jail, he’s replaced with another one and then pardoned!
            It’s fucking outrageous man!

            Liked by 4 people

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