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Russian Reset Remains Lost in Translation

By Henry “Chip” Carey

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit a mock “reset” button with her Russian counterpart three years ago, the diplomatic gesture became a symbol for the start of normalized U.S.-Russian relations. The red button featured the word reset in English, but somehow someone missed its Russian translation. Instead of “perezagruzka” for reset, someone inscribed “peregruzka,” which means overcharge or overload. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Russia has done—charged into former Soviet states to exert its sphere of influence.

By pushing that button, the U.S. tacitly accepted Russian supremacy in the region. Since then we’ve witnessed the country start down a path toward a consolidated authoritarian regime that seeks enemies and excuses to distract its public from a dictatorship that is no longer benevolent. Now Russia is getting away with a lot more than what the U.S. had bargained for in this relationship.

Last Thursday, General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, raised the alarm by asserting that nuclear war could result from a military confrontation on the Russian periphery. It was clear he was referring to NATO’s outstanding plans eventually to invite Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO membership, as well as the risks to Russian hegemony on its borderlands.

In early August 2008, Georgia invaded South Ossetia, a disputed area that had declared independence from Georgia in 1990. A few days later, Russia invaded South Ossetia to support its peacekeeping troops that Russia had installed after the Ossetian-Georgian fighting in the early 1990s, just as it had in Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. The invading troops withdrew under a European Union peace plan, but the peacekeeping troops have remained. The Russians call their troops ‘peacekeepers,’ but they were never authorized as required under UN Charter Article 49, mandating Security Council clearance for regional organizations, in this case, what Russia claims is the Confederation of Independent States (an intergovernmental organization composed of the former Soviet republics). American neoconservatives claim the organization does not exist.

By contrast, Russia invaded Chechnya—also in the North Caucasus region in both 1994 and 1999. Like South Ossetia, Chechnya had declared independence, but this time from Russia. Russia continues to conduct a “dirty war” against insurgents throughout the entire North Caucasus region. Unlike the "peacekeeping troops" in Georgia and Azerbaijan, whose human rights violations are episodic, the Russian troops on Russian terrritory have perpetrated serious war crimes over the past decade in an ongoing counter-insurgency. In the current age of relation “reset,” the U.S. has accepted the presence of Russian troop aggression and war crimes in the North Caucasus region, despite prior U.S. opposition.

At the time of Russia’s 2008 South Ossetia invasion, American neoconservative Robert Kagan complained bitterly about Russian aggression and atrocities, arguing that Russian actions amounted to imperialism. Kagan called Russia’s military response part of a larger plan to remove Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili from power to pave the way for regional domination and perhaps eventually acquire territory controlled by the Soviet Union. The Russians claimed that Georgian troops, in attacking first, had committed aggression and genocide in South Ossetia in contrast to the legitimate Russian peacekeepers who had stopped the fight.

In the end, Russia ended the offense not because of international pressure but because it had achieved its strategic objective. After President Sarkozy mediated the conflict’s end on behalf of the EU, Russia halted its invasion and agreed to allow the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe to make sure peacekeeping troops remained inside South Ossetia. Russia sent a signal to the U.S. that it would continue to exert  “sphere of influence” in its "near abroad”—just like the U.S. has done under its Monroe Doctrine, which re-affirmed as recently as the 1980s under Reagan, when Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger specifically defended U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran government under the Monroe Doctrine.

Russia insists that neither Georgia nor Ukraine should ever become NATO members. So far,  NATO has not pushed the NATO membership issue since President Bush made the proposal at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. When Obama tried to ‘reset’ relations with Russia and facilitate Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization by getting Russia and Georgia to agree to this status quo, Russia consolidated its achievement by either getting the West to accept Russia’s dominant role in the region, or at least ending public complaints such as the U.S. voiced when Russian troops invaded Georgia in 2008—events which remain controversial and unresolved as to which country was the real aggressor. Clearly, the West has decided that it does not need the distraction of any war near Russia’s borders, including defending Georgia from alleged Russian aggression.

Russia had other strategic goals:  avoid losing its natural gas sales to Western Europe, via the pipeline that was established in the early 1980s, and eventually to gain admission to the WTO. It also wanted to cooperate with Europe so that Georgia would look more like the aggressor, spoiling the latter's chances at becoming a NATO member. On all three matters, Russia’s efforts seem to have paid off.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has had several policy options. Both neoconservatives and liberals have criticized Russian human rights violations, especially press censorship, electoral rigging, and violent atrocities and torture in the North Caucasus. The neoconservatives have insisted that Russian imperialism should be stopped by making Georgia a NATO member and by removing Russia’s CIS troops from four breakaway republics, two in Georgia (also Abkhazia), as well as in Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), and Moldova (Transnistria). In these areas, neoconservatives argue that Russian troops have been “dividing and conquering” by arming one or both sides in these various civil conflicts. The Russian troops have kept the peace in three of the four frozen conflicts.

Now that Georgia and Russia have just signed a trade agreement, Georgia has implicitly accepted the 1,500 troops in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognizes both as independent states inside Georgia. In return for that agreement, the last hurdle in Russia’s 18-year quest to become a WTO member has been removed, and Russia is expected to be a WTO member in January. American liberals are less concerned about the de facto Russian control of sovereign territory in the three countries. They see these breakaway republics as zones of ethnic autonomy (Russians in Transnistria and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh) to protect the cultural self-determination of distinct peoples. Many liberals, however, doubt the apparent popularity and legitimacy of Putin’s authoritarianism, because poll results are based on a closed society without an opposition or reporting of Russia’s problems.

Obama took the realist path. He has accepted Russia as it is to get the country’s support for anti-terrorism efforts, nuclear non-proliferation, and sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Obama also wanted to ensure that natural gas and oil reached Western markets.

With the confirmation of U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, the U.S. ought to rethink its reset. McFaul is an expert on democracy promotion, as well as Russia, and he ought to gain the support of both neoconservatives and liberals by reinstating that goal in U.S. policy toward Moscow, as he pledged to do in his October confirmation hearings, that Russian censorship and war crimes should not go unnoticed as they have been.

Of course, Russia’s cooperation on sanctions on Iran and North Korea, as well as arms reductions and missile defense cooperation might be jeopardized by U.S. criticism. The dilemma is whether to overlook Russia’s emerging KGB state in the hope that geopolitical cooperation will thrive or to contain a growing threat that Russia’s growing authoritarianism will make the U.S. an enemy. At this point, the U.S. needs to start worrying about the latter too, not by demanding Western-style democracy, but by insisting that as a minimum, the U.S. government cannot do business with a Russia that violates the most basic of human rights. The U.S. must demand that Russia halts its summary disappearances and torture throughout Transcaucasia and tolerate a more free press at home.

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 Henry “Chip” Carey is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.  His two forthcoming books are: Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding  (Palgrave MacMillan) and Reaping what you Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina (Praeger).

[Photo courtesy of Bohan Shen]

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