Revisiting the “Reset” and Russian Expansion into Crimea

Putin has every reason to think that the Ukraine crisis will pass as did the Georgia crisis. And President Xi Jinping in Beijing will be watching as well, calculating how far to push in Asia. What is being reset is the map of the world.

By William R. Hawkins | March 11, 2014

In one of my last articles for SFPPR News & Analysis (Nov. 22, 2010) before I took a hiatus from writing to serve on the staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, I warned that the “reset” policy being pursued by the Obama administration would “give Russia room to expand.” The policy did not change; indeed it was embraced more fully. With Moscow’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine, it is time to bring my predictions up to date.

Arms control, Iran and trade were topics I addressed. None have advanced peace nor shown improved behavior by the Kremlin.

A treaty for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, known as the New START Treaty, entered into force in early 2011. President Obama hailed the agreement as part of his vision for a world without nuclear weapons. It has removed from consideration the modernization of the U.S. deterrent force. It has not, however, lessened Russian interest in a stronger strategic posture. Last November, President Vladimir Putin conducted nuclear planning sessions in Sochi, even as preparations were being made there for the Winter Olympics.  In 2014, Russia plans to build 22 new ICBMs and two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. America hasnt built any new weapons like these in decades.

When New START was signed in April, 2010, the Russians stated that they would only abide by it if the U.S. did not build a missile defense system. The Kremlin believes that the main purpose of its nuclear forces is to attack the United States as if the Cold War was still on. Moscow test launched an ICBM on March 4 as its troops laid siege to Ukrainian bases. It wanted to remind the world that it is still a nuclear power whose ambitions it would be risky to oppose.

Russian support for Iran in talks over its nuclear program has continued. It has increased in regard to Tehran’s determination to keep the Assad regime in power in Syria. After talks for a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war collapsed, Secretary of State Kerry noted (Feb. 17) that “The [Assad] regime stonewalled. They did nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country. And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hizbullah and from Russia.” One reason Moscow has supported the Assad regime is its use of the naval base at Tartus – a warm water port in the eastern Mediterranean, just north of the Syrian-Lebanese border.  Another Russian naval base is at stake in Ukraine; Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea fleet. Putin has already shown a willingness to see massive amounts of blood spilled to protect his nation’s interests.

Since the “end” of the Cold War, American political and business leaders across the spectrum have claimed economic integration will bring world peace and stability. This draws on “free trade” ideas from the early 19th century, which have remained popular despite their abject failure throughout history. China has been in the vanguard of this approach. The Beijing regime was admitted into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Since then, the U.S. has sent China nearly $3 trillion via trade deficits ($318.4 billion last year) along with incredible transfers of technology. In 2010, I wrote, “tensions have risen as China has used the gains from trade and development to support a foreign policy at odds with U.S. interests all across the globe.” Beijing has only become more belligerent in the years since, pushing its territorial claims to the entire South and East China seas.

And on March 3, Global Times, an official publication of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, editorialized about the Ukraine crisis, stating, “In the international political arena, principles are decided by power. Without its support and blessing, no principle can prevail.” The editorial also hailed Putin as the man who “brought back the past glory of Russia.”

In 2012, Russia joined the WTO. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said at the time that this was “an investment in the more open and prosperous Russia that we would like to see develop.” This was after he had mentioned problems with Moscow over wars in Georgia and Syria. And after Moscow had used its economic leverage from energy exports in 2006 and 2009 to punish the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine for wanting to align with the West. In 2010, I quoted former president George W. Bush’s statement, “Over the course of eight years, Russia’s newfound wealth affected Putin. He became aggressive abroad.” That trend has continued. Like China, the WTO did not make Russia a “responsible stakeholder” in a world system based on liberal norms.

Russia’s aggression in the Crimea should end the reset, but it may not. Candidate Obama denounced the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. He stated, “The United States, Europe and all other concerned countries must stand united in condemning this aggression… This is a clear violation of the sovereignty and internationally recognized borders of Georgia.” Moscow had intervened to allegedly “protect” ethnic Russians in South Ossetia, a rebellious province of Georgia. When the Tbilisi government moved against the rebels, Russia escalated and invaded Georgia itself. It was a larger conflict than the Crimea crisis has produced, so far. Yet, as soon as President Obama took office, he was willing to forgive and forget in order to ease tensions. Hence the “reset.”

Russia still controls South Ossetia. How long after Moscow consolidates its control of Crimea will Obama decide it’s time to get back to business as usual? The proper term for this is not “reset” but appeasement. Putin has every reason to think that the Ukraine crisis will pass as did the Georgia crisis. And President Xi Jinping in Beijing will be watching as well, calculating how far to push in Asia. What is being reset is the map of the world.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.