Nyet to the Reset

Friday, February 15, 2019

Any reset with Putin’s increasingly illiberal and expansionist Russia is a triumph of hope over experience. Unrealistic realists underestimate the importance of ideology and regime type in assessing Russia’s calculus of its ambitions and interest.

The Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy rightly ranked China and Russia as the paramount long-term strategic threats the United States faces, requiring robust deterrence and the restoration of America’s margin of military preponderance that President Obama’s dangerous downsizing of the military perilously eroded. Accordingly, the United States should strenuously oppose rather than enable Putin’s ambition to “obtain veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic, and diplomatic decisions, to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor.”

Contrary to a reset, that entails bolstering military deterrence in Europe. That entails maintaining tough economic sanctions on Russia’s banking and energy sector. That entails reversing President Obama’s terrible decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. That entails lifting the arms embargo on Ukraine to facilitate its heroic struggle to become part of the West.

No deal with Russia is worth Putin’s price of sacrificing Ukraine’s independence in the vain hope of securing a more compliant Russia. No country has suffered more from Great Russian and Soviet oppression than Ukraine. As Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasize, American ideals and self-interest converge in this case: an independent pro-Russian Ukraine renders implausible on its face any Russian attempt to transform the balance of power in its favor.

Putin has played a weak hand deftly in pursuing his grandiose ambitions to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. Recall he publicly lamented the demise of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy. He has fostered the vision of Russian superpower status, which President Obama’s feckless reset epitomized, in order to wage war against Ukraine, to replace the United States as the Middle East’s dominant power, to enable Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, and to decouple Germany from NATO and NATO from the United States. His cyber campaign achieved his chief objective of discrediting the winner of the 2016 presidential election.

The United States and its NATO allies can easily afford to implement and sustain a neo-Reaganite strategy that gave the Soviet Union during the 1980’s no choice but to reform or collapse. The military potential of the United States and its NATO allies dwarfs Russia’s. An increasingly authoritarian corrupt Russia is in many ways an economic basket case. The surge in American energy will largely deprive Russia of the one source of hard currency that has masked Russian decline.

In these circumstances, we should call Putin’s bluff. A reset with Putin would do the opposite, reprising the mistakes of the Obama administration, emboldening our foes and demoralizing our allies while undermining our interests. A decent, democratic India and Japan offer the United States a more reliable and capable substitute for any evanescent benefits a tactical collaboration with Putin could yield.

Although President Trump’s past pronouncements about Putin can make any sensible strategist wince, his policies have turned out—as usual—better than they sound rhetorically. His defense buildup, his decision to arm Ukraine, and his superb national security team have contributed mightily to raising the barrier to Russian aggression everywhere. Nyet to the reset, as long as Russia remains the house Vladimir Putin built.