The Russian Reset Failure

By Rich Lowry Published on January 9, 2017

President Barack Obama has finally had it with Russia. It only took eight years of cold reality — topped off by the Russian interference in the November election — to make the outgoing president almost clear-eyed about the Kremlin.

Not that Obama is ready to admit error. Asked by George Stephanopoulos on Sunday if he underestimated Vladimir Putin, Obama said no, he had only missed how cyberhacking could be used to meddle in our electoral system — in other words, it was a technical mistake, rather than a fundamental misassessment of a foreign adversary.

Perhaps the president can be forgiven for not being more forthright, since it would require acknowledging how spectacularly his reset failed. President Obama began his term with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presenting her Russian counterpart with a (mistranslated) reset button, and ended it watching the Kremlin target Hillary Clinton’s party and campaign team with no evident respect for U.S. sovereignty or fear of U.S. retaliation.

The reset was premised on willful naiveté about Russia. It required forgiving and forgetting the Russian invasion of Georgia that had occurred only in August of 2008, on the cusp of Obama’s election. It meant looking away from the poisoning of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, a crime that British authorities concluded in 2007 was an assassination carried out by Russian intelligence. It demanded believing that temporary Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a supposed modernizer, was something other than a place holder for the real power in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

Obama thought that misunderstandings and ill will had undermined the U.S.-Russian relationship under George W. Bush (who himself had an early soft spot for Putin), and his more deft, reassuring touch would make new memories. In 2010, the White House was patting itself on the back for forging “win-win outcomes” with Russia.

The touching emphasis on mutual interests and respect failed to understand Vladimir Putin’s motives. How he must have snickered when at a summit in 2012, Obama was caught on a hot mic telling Medvedev that he should relay to Putin to give him “space” because after the election he’d “have more flexibility.”

The Russian leader cared only about power and honor (and riches for himself and his cronies), and was immune to Obama’s blandishments. Putin stole the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections anyway. He invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014 anyway. He intervened in Syria in 2015 and bombed Aleppo to rubble anyway.

The administration always made the minimal response, and actually welcomed Russia’s entry into Syria as part of a face-saving way out of Obama’s “red line” fiasco.

It is only now, after the Russian meddling in the November election, that all the apologists for Obama’s reset have converted en masse to stalwart Russia hawks. They almost sound ready to reconstitute the Cold War-era Committee for the Free World — after years of accommodation of Moscow.

Oh, how they mocked Mitt Romney when he said in 2012 that Russia was our foremost geopolitical rival. And resisted calls to arm Ukraine against the Russian invasion. And welcomed the faux chemical-weapons deal Russia forged in Syria, and took seriously, time and again, the utterly bootless attempts to cut cease-fire deals with Russia in Syria.

Perhaps Russia’s hacking over the past year would have turned liberals against Moscow no matter what, but one gets the sense that, in their minds, Russia’s chief offense was taking the wrong side in the election.

Now, with Obama’s reset in tatters, Donald Trump wants to pursue his own version. Vladimir Putin has a dark view of the United States, so it must be a mystery to him why every new American president is so convinced that he can get along with the Russian, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Trump should learn from Obama’s failure, and not replicate it.


Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]

© 2017 by King Features Syndicate

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