Russia's Moves Raise Doubts About Obama's 'Reset'

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Sergei Chuzavkov / AP

Ukrainians holds hold a poster depicting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a comment reading "No more drinking for Medvedev" in front of the Russian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine. The poster, right, reads "All life in Moscow is impregnated with lies."

The much-trumpeted "reset" of relations between Russia and the U.S. was dealt a slap in the face last week as Moscow went on the offensive against Ukraine and Georgia. After Russian President Dmitri Medvedev waded into Ukrainian politics with barbed criticism of his Ukrainian counterpart's "anti-Russian" policies, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin embarked on a provocative trip to reaffirm support for Abkhazia, the Moscow-backed territory that enjoys de facto independence from Georgia.

While Washington insists that it will not recognize a Russian "sphere of influence," the moves by Medvedev and Putin place a question mark over the Obama Administration's ability to check Russia's determination to forcefully push what it calls its "privileged interests" in its neighboring countries. The flurry of diplomatic activity came symbolically on the anniversary of last summer's Russia-Georgia war, in which Moscow intervened on behalf of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The reset, announced by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in February, was meant to signal the rebuilding of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia that had soured under George W. Bush. But despite some progress on issues such as arms control and Afghanistan when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Moscow in July, it's back to business as usual for Russia with its neighbors, as it tries to assert its authority despite the U.S.'s disapproval. "The one thing that could most endanger the reset policy would be really bad Russian behavior in the post-Soviet states," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "The Russians don't want to recreate the Soviet Union, but they do want a system in which their neighbors pay close deference to what Moscow determines to be its vital national interests. The United States has a different view."

After weeks of escalating diplomatic tensions between Russia and Ukraine, including mutual expulsions of diplomats, Medvedev on Aug. 11 unleashed a tirade of complaints in a letter and video blog posted on the Kremlin web site, in which he accused Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko of bringing relations to "unprecedented lows." Since coming to power in 2005 — after mass protests known as the Orange Revolution overturned a ballot rigged in favor of Moscow-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych — Yushchenko has riled the Kremlin with his attempts to drag Ukraine away from Russia's sphere of influence and toward the West.

After an extensive list of gripes, covering Ukraine's attempts to join NATO, its sale of weapons to Georgia, its interpretation of Soviet history and its attitude toward the Russian language, Medvedev announced that he was delaying the dispatch of the new Russian ambassador to Kiev until things improved.

Yushchenko responded with his own letter directed at Medvedev, criticizing the Russian President's meddling in Ukraine's foreign policy decisions, saying that while he agreed relations were bad he was "surprised that you completely deny Russia's responsibility for this."

The Russian leadership has long been battling with Yushchenko over what they see as his attempts to tear apart two countries that are, according to Medvedev, "not just neighbors, but brother nations." In his letter, Medvedev signaled that Moscow would like to see a more cooperative leader in place in Kiev after Ukraine's presidential elections in January, a statement that hit a raw nerve with Ukrainians, who still remember Russia's forays into the 2004 elections in support of Yanukovych.

Valeriy Chaly, deputy director of the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev, says that the publication of Medvedev's letter showed that the President was trying to insert the topic of Russia into election discussions as it did in 2004: "It's a test of loyalty for the presidential candidates."

But observers in Kiev say Medvedev's attack only proves that Russia has learnt nothing from its botched intervention in 2004, and that the latest move is likely to backfire — despite a generally positive attitude toward Russia, Ukrainians often react negatively when they feel they're being bullied. And although the leading contenders for the Ukrainian presidency are less overtly opposed to Russia's demands than the incumbent (who is running despite low approval ratings), Moscow is set to be disappointed if it thinks a change in leadership is going to bring Ukraine back into its fold. Even ostensibly pro-Russian Yanukovych has in the past blown hot and cold on NATO integration, a goal of Yushchenko's that has consistently irked Moscow.

"Ukraine's position is pretty consolidated," says Chaly. "It's not anti-Russian, but the country's foreign and domestic policy depends on national interests, so even pro-Russian politicians aren't going to lead us toward goals declared by the Russian President."

The breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are proving more pliable. With Nicaragua the only country other than Russia to recognize their independence, they are reliant on support from Moscow, which has been happy to oblige. The day after Medvedev's letter was made public, Prime Minister Putin visited Abkhazia, pledging around $500 million in military aid. Georgia reacted angrily, calling the visit "a provocation carried out quite in the tradition of Soviet special services," a reference to Putin's KGB past.

The anniversary of the conflict in South Ossetia also saw Medvedev backing an initiative that would give a legal basis for deploying the Russian military abroad to defend Russian citizens and armed forces from attack — precisely the reason given by Moscow for its intervention last year. This raises concerns about the Kremlin's designs on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which has a large ethnic Russian population and is home to the Black Sea Fleet.

While Russia continues to reach into its neighbors' affairs, there appears to be little that Washington can do. Although Biden was in Ukraine and Georgia in July to show support, the response to Medvedev's letter was low-key, with a State Department spokesman repeating the customary defense of Ukraine's sovereignty and its right to make its own choices.

"The Russian leadership thinks that despite its rhetoric the U.S. is so heavily focused elsewhere that it is not really interested in the former Soviet Union," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank in Moscow. "The reset was done on the U.S. side; the Russians didn't feel they had anything to correct."