Under reset, the incoming Obama administration, more nuanced than the outgoing Bush administration and drawing on more enlightened thinking, would appeal to the better angels of Putin’s Russia. The more complex Obamaites would help enlighten the Putin autocracy to the fact that the U.S. and Russia had common interests in improving free trade. We really both wanted to calm world tensions while discouraging proliferation, combating terrorism, working with the United Nations, quelling international crises, and promoting human rights. Once Russians had been tutored about America’s good intentions, we could undo (“reset”) the damage done by the swaggering braggadocio of the interventionist prior administration. Misunderstanding and ill feelings, not ill intentions and malfeasance, were Russia’s sins.
And what is the result of reset? It is open Russian promotion of the Syria/Hezbollah/Iran axis that was active in Iraq and is now more so in Syria. It is Russian obstruction at the U.N. of most American initiatives. It is another round of strangulation of the former Soviet republics. It is satisfaction that a frustrated United States has been reduced to appeasement instead of taking serious steps to thwart Iranian nuclearization, as Putin eggs Iran on. It is more pressure on Eastern Europeans to look to the East, not to the West. It is humiliation of the European Union over Ukraine. It is more internal oppression of a brutal sort. And it is a gratuitous delight in exposing the Obama administration as sanctimonious and weak, while the U.S. lectures Russia on human rights, as if its tepid moral remonstrations de facto translate into shamed abidance. In sum, what the Obama administration is for, Putin is mostly against.
All that said, there is a value for us in Putin. I don’t mean the strange Pat Buchanan–style admiration for Putin’s creepy reactionary social agenda and his tirades about Western social decadence. Rather, I refer to Putin’s confidence in his unabashedly thuggish means, the brutal fashion in which a modern state so unapologetically embraces the premodern mind to go after its critics, be they journalists or academics, or stifles free debate without worry over Western censure. Putin is a mirror showing more than just what we should not be.