Russian elections: US and Europe must rethink the 'reset'
Vladimir Putin, who seems set to return to the presidency after Russian elections Sunday, looks to be tossing aside the reset in relations with the US and Europe. Were the West to continue to embrace the Kremlin, it would alienate Russians, especially reformers.
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The reset policy – which aimed at encouraging better Russian behavior by emphasizing areas of cooperation rather than difference – will have been tossed aside by Russia.Skip to next paragraph
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If the West were to persist with the reset, it would mean de-emphasizing criticism of Putinism, while Putin himself escalates attacks on domestic opponents and the West, and thwarts a responsible international security agenda.
In the very remote chance that Putin loses, or at least emerges substantially weakened due to unprecedented domestic opposition, the West will face a different problem.
Because of the West’s deliberate embrace of the Kremlin, Russians pushing for a less corrupt and more democratic country will see the United States and Europe as having failed to stand up for the rights of ordinary Russians, while accommodating Putin and his regime. They will see the West as having sought to protect its own interests at the expense of the Russian people.
Whoever succeeds Putin to power in those circumstances – whether it be a reformer or a heavy-handed nationalist – will hardly look to the West as an inspiration or a friend.
Thus, in either scenario, the reset policy of the US and Europe is increasingly out of synch. The policy was premised on working together with the Russian government where possible. While never giving up on supporting democracy and Russia’s neighbors in principle, the point was not to allow such support to interrupt the prospect of building a constructive relationship with the Russian government.
Already, Putin has made clear that such a constructive relationship will not be possible.
It is of course conceivable that a re-elected Putin will morph into a reformer. But I wouldn’t count on it – and the West should be prepared to act determinedly upon the first signs that the old Putin is back.
With such a reality, the US and Europe should change course – still seeking to cooperate where possible, but taking a strong public stand against political corruption in Moscow, and in support of the legitimate aims of the Russian people, as expressed through a genuine democratic process. For example: Should Putin really be invited to a NATO-Russia Summit in Chicago in May? Or have a bilateral meeting with Mr. Obama?
Even if Putin does settle in for another dozen years, the Russian people need to know that democracies are on their side, and Putin himself needs to know that there are consequences if he persists in his old ways.
Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and the Atlantic Council. A version of this article appeared in Handelsblatt (Germany).