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Time to Reset Obama’s Reset Policy

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Russia is yet another example of President Obama's naïve foreign policy, which has left American interests weakened and our values compromised.

President Obama’s much-touted reset policy with Russia has failed.  Instead of democratic reform, Vladimir Putin has led an authoritarian drift that is crowding civil society, repressing a free press, and denying free and fair elections to the Russian people. Meanwhile, on missile defense, Iran, Syria, and other issues, Russia is consistently taking positions in opposition to U.S. interests.

The latest chapter of this sorry story will play out in the March 4 presidential election. With a fractured opposition, control of most media outlets, overwhelming resources, little space for civil society, and curbs on opposition political parties, Putin undoubtedly will be elected president again. This will extend his 12-year rule for another 6 years.

Russia is yet another case of President Obama’s naïve leadership in foreign policy that has left American interests weakened and our values compromised.

Soviet-Era 2.0

Under Putin, direct election of governors has been eliminated. Moscow, controlled by Putin, appoints them now. Federal districts have been eliminated to squeeze out pro-Western democracy elements in the Duma.

Opposition parties were required to re-register for the Duma elections in December; none of the most vocal opposition groups were granted registration; all were barred from campaigning. These changes tilted the playing field in favor of Putin’s United Russia political party.

To protest the election irregularities, chronic corruption, and economic inequality, Russians went to the streets in the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the December vote was marred by various irregularities to ensure Putin’s triumph. According to European election observers, there were “serious indications of ballot box stuffing” in the elections. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Petros Efthymiou said, “The contest was also slanted in favor of the ruling party, the election administration lacked independence, most media were partial and state authorities interfered unduly at different locals.”

Despite these irregularities, United Russia was unable to achieve 50 percent of the votes cast. Putin’s party had received 64 percent of the vote in 2007 but got just under 50 percent this time. In the 450-seat Duma, United Russia’s numbers decreased from 315 seats to a slim majority of 238 deputies. Putin has lost the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution. It was Putin’s worst election setback since he came to power 12 years ago.

To protest the election irregularities, chronic corruption, and economic inequality, Russians went to the streets in the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In central Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, about 30,000 people gathered. According to the Itar Tass news agency, protesters were of all ages and varied backgrounds. The protests quickly spread to St. Petersburg and up to 50 other Russian cities.

In response, the interior ministry deployed tens of thousands of police and troops, as well as dozens of prison trucks, to downtown Moscow. Police helicopters monitored the situation from the air. Hundreds were arrested. And Putin implied that U.S. funds sponsored the protesters.

At the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, said on Ekho Moskvy radio, “We do not have real democracy and we will not have it if the government is afraid of their people, afraid to say things openly.”

With a fractured opposition, control of most media outlets, overwhelming resources, little space for civil society, and curbs on opposition political parties, Putin undoubtedly will be elected president again.

Commentator Mikhail Rostovsky wrote in Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspaper: “No Orange Revolution will happen in Russia on the cusp of 2011-12. The authorities will ensure whatever results from the election they consider necessary. (However, the results) may be deemed unfair by a considerable part of the Russian population. If that happens, the keynote of the Russian political process in the near future may be a gradual erosion in the legitimacy of the authorities.”

The public outrage continues as Russia approaches the upcoming presidential election. In the first weekend of February, thousands of demonstrators braced arctic cold weather and again went to the streets of Moscow to protest the rigged election process. Protest organizers claimed over 120,000 demonstrators crowded Bolotnaya Square to demand the end of Putin’s reign. Gregory Kataev was among the protesters. When asked why he was there in -20 degree freezing cold, he said, “If I want a better Russia, if I want it to be a democratic country, I have to do something, not only speaking in the kitchen, as we say in Russia.” That sentiment is what Putin seeks to extinguish.

Meanwhile, Putin has increased his efforts to tame any semblance of an independent press. For example, Ekho Moskvy radio station, which has a reputation as one of Russia’s few independent voices, was ordered to reshuffle its management. Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov, his first deputy Vladimir Varfolomeyev, and other key members of the board are leaving and a pro-Kremlin majority has been left behind.

In a meeting with a group of editors on January 18, Putin told the chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, Alexei Venediktov, that his station pours diarrhea “over me day and night.” The editors got the message. TV and radio stations’ attacks on the opposition rose.

Putin has lost the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution.

On February 10, Dozhd, an Internet channel that has become a popular source of news, received a letter from prosecutors asking where the money had come from to cover the December protests.

Civil society has been squeezed. In a nationally televised address on November 27, Putin suggested that the independent election monitoring group Golos was receiving outside money and was a vehicle to influence the election. Since then, Golos was turned out of its office.

Throughout this political drama, Putin and his colleagues have increased their anti-American rhetoric. Repeatedly, Putin and others have blamed outsiders, and particularly the United States, for stirring up unrest and seeking to destabilize Russia.

Following the December protests, Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of sending a signal to the demonstrators to protest the election. And in February, when Putin’s spokesman was asked whether American money was being used to support the protests, Dmitry Peskov replied, “I don’t believe it, I know it.”

And since the January arrival of the new American ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the anti-American rhetoric has escalated at an alarming rate. Mikhail Leontyev, a commentator on Russian state TV, said McFaul was close to U.S. intelligence services. Others have said McFaul has been sent to Moscow to foment an Orange Revolution in Russia.

Opposition parties were required to re-register for the Duma elections in December; none of the most vocal opposition groups were granted registration.

Moscow’s TV Channel One reported at length on a reception McFaul had for Russian civil society leaders. Under the screen, the caption read, “US Embassy: Receiving instructions from the new Ambassador” while the names of opposition politicians were read out. Ruling party legislators have said any legislator entering the U.S. embassy is a traitor.

Some commentators say this heated anti-American rhetoric is merely a campaign tactic. They say the ruling party wants to cultivate the idea that Russia is besieged and Putin is their savior. The narrative is that the United States is trying to weaken Russia and push it back into chaos.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says, “Putin revived the Soviet-era argument. We are poor because we are surrounded by enemies. That serves as an explanation for the economic inefficiency and an argument against a leadership change.”

Even if such outrageous charges are just political tactics, they reveal a disturbing mindset reminiscent of the Soviet-era KGB. And such rhetoric does have consequences. “(The Russian) people have been poisoned by television, and many sincerely believe in U.S. aggressive intentions,” said Russian political analyst Alexander Konovalov. “The focus now is on showing the domestic audience that (Putin) doesn’t fear standing up to the United States.”

Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, has observed that Putin is “posturing as a defender against American expansion and the guarantor of stability … Television is ramming through thoughts about American spies and the paid protesters.”

American Policy

American foreign policy must first address the United States’ security requirements and vital interests. But our values have and should continue to animate our foreign policy. America has been “the shining city on the hill” for Freedom’s March. In Russia, that march is clearly in retreat. President Obama’s reset policy has failed.

Since the January arrival of the new American ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the anti-American rhetoric has escalated at an alarming rate.

Beyond the liberty and welfare of the Russian people and their right to representative government, Russia also opposes important U.S. interests. Russia continues to fight against the deployment of missile defense for our friends and allies in Europe. Russia is fighting tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran even as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports on Iran’s relentless progress toward nuclear weapons and the U.S. State Department labels Tehran as the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism. And, despite more than 5,400 people killed in Syria during the past year, Putin’s Russia remains an unstinting supporter of Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime. During the recent vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s horrific abuses, Russia provided a political lifeline al-Assad by casting a veto.

However well intentioned, President Obama’s policy towards Russia has proven to be naïve and weak. As we approach Russia’s rigged March 4 presidential election, it’s time to reset Obama’s reset policy.

Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies, LLP, and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.

FURTHER READING: Williamson also writes “Egyptian Raids Seek to Halt Freedom’s March,” “‘It Is a New Day for My Sons,’” and “Blood, Oil, and Sudan.” Daniel Vajdic explains “Why the GOP Candidates Should Talk about Russia.” Leon Aron discusses “What Russia’s Election was Really About.” Nicholas Eberstadt asks “Are We Ready to Deal With a *Weaker* Russia?

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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