It usually ends in tears. The Kremlin-White House romance has fallen repeatedly from starry-eyed hope and foreign-policy petting to hysterics and blame-gaming.
Jimmy Carter thought he could find a partner in Brezhnev. He cast off “containment” and encouraged America to lose the “inordinate fear of communism”: by the end of his term he was boycotting the Moscow Olympics as the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Bill Clinton went in for drinking sessions and back slapping with Boris Yeltsin, but the more he backed him the more corrupt Yeltsin’s regime became and the more the U.S. was discredited: by the time NATO bombed Yugoslavia, the Kremlin was already grinding its teeth. George W. looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed he could “see his soul” (“I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw KGB” quipped the less smitten Colin Powell): by 2008 they were almost at war over Georgia and relations were back to a “Cold War low.” Obama’s decision today to snub his September tête-à-tête with Putin “due to a lack of progress on missiles, arms control, trade, commercial relations, global security, human rights, civil society and … Edward Snowden” fell on the five-year anniversary of the Georgian war. It feels like the beginning of the end of the “reset with Russia,” the policy that has defined Obama’s own dalliance with the Kremlin.
The reset got off to an awkward start. When Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to toast the new relationship in 2009, she brought him a big red button as a symbolic present. She thought it said “reset” on it in Russian. But her people had got the Russian for reset wrong and instead of perezagruzka wrote pereguzka, which means overload. The central premise of the policy, as with every attempt to bond Moscow and Washington, was that if the U.S. showed Russian leaders some respect and got over Cold War thinking they could find a common language. In a gesture of good will Obama pulled back from George W.’s plan for a missile shield in Eastern Europe: leaving America’s NATO allies in the region humiliated. The pattern of accommodation continued. When protests swelled in Moscow aimed at corruption and electoral fraud, the White house reaction was muted. When the Kremlin accused the State Department of orchestrating the protests, the White House nodded politely. When USAID, which had done important work in supporting Russian NGOs who tracked electoral fraud, was thrown out of Russia, the White House acquiesced. When Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, the White House “congratulated the Russian people”: official recognition of a new president is protocol, but the particular phrasing was seen as a sick joke by Russian liberals. The White House claimed all this was worth it to gain Kremlin cooperation on START, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. But these are moot victories: in Afghanistan, Russia can gain only from having America spend money on defeating radical Islamists; the situations with Iran and North Korea are barely blooming, and START just isn’t seen as that important in the Kremlin.
As soon as real interests were touched, the relationship fell apart. Syria is often quoted as the problem, but, while there has been frustration on both sides, the language has never descended into hysteria: there’s even a sense that Washington is secretly somewhat grateful the Kremlin gives an excuse not to intervene, while the Kremlin is grateful the White House makes it look far more important than it is by taking its opinion into account so publicly. The Snowden affair, however, seems to have stepped on something truly painful for Obama, the complex interplay of security and freedom that is both his priority and his weak spot. While for Putin the relationship began to fall apart not in Damascus but in a hotel room in Bangkok, where the KGB man turned arms dealer Victor Bout was first arrested and then extradited to the U.S. in 2010. Bout is an (alleged) associate of Putin’s closest ally, Igor Sechin, nicknamed the Darth Vader of Russian politics and now head of the world’s largest oil company, Rosneft. They are symbolic of the priorities of the new Russia, whose interests are less Cold War expansionism or even great power relations in the 19th-century mold than exploiting the dark sides of open markets and free flows of globalization for financial gain (in turn secured through politics, which makes the two often inseparable). Thus the nervous breakdown the Kremlin suffered when Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which put visa and investment bans for corrupt Russian bureaucrats in the U.S. The Kremlin responded by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans: Fatal Attraction behavior, especially given that Obama had lobbied hard against the act. As they descend into their somewhat embarrassing public row, Obama and Putin both accuse each other of Cold War behavior, but their disagreements are all about both sides’ 21st-century priorities.
Paradoxically, the president who managed to get the greatest results out of his relationship with the Kremlin was Ronald Reagan, who instead of initially looking for “a common language” called the USSR “the evil Empire” and ended up bringing down the Berlin Wall and waltzing with Gorbachev. It could have been a fluke. But maybe Obama can borrow something from the approach. The Magnitsky Act contains the germ of a new direction: a double-edged sword that simultaneously attacks corruption and human rights abuses in autocracies while also cleaning up the worst sides of the financial system. These are 21st-century, post–Cold War priorities, but I’m afraid the Kremlin will still hate them.