The Obama administration’s support of a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations alienated human rights activists and yielded few achievements ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this week, experts said Wednesday.
President Barack Obama will be in Russia on Thursday and Friday for the meeting of the world’s leading economies during a time of significant strain in the United States’ relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Obama cancelled one-on-one talks with Putin before the summit after Russia granted asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
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The Snowden affair is only the latest indication that Obama’s attempt to reach a rapprochement with Russia has failed, argued Donald Jensen, resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, during a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation.
"The Russian reset has been dead or on life support for a long period of time," he said.
While U.S. officials have focused on issues like nuclear nonproliferation or missile defense, Putin has initiated a crackdown on political dissidents in Russia, Jensen said. Opponents of Putin’s regime are routinely jailed, he said, pointing to a five-year sentence for prominent anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny that many observers view as politically motivated.
A new Russian law also forces non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents," a label that Western-backed civil society groups fear will restrict their activities.
"It’s high time for the U.S. to once again embrace the moral dimension of our relations with Russia—a more active promotion of human rights and a more emphatic engagement with those elements of the Russian opposition that have been alienated by the Russian reset," Jensen said.
Reuters reported that Obama would meet with Russian human rights activists on Thursday. One expressed concerns to Reuters that the meeting was more about "politics" and U.S. frustration with Putin rather than a genuine show of support for human rights in Russia.
Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, defended the administration’s approach to Russia at the Heritage event. Farkas pointed to the signing of the New START treaty for the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and Russian cooperation with the Afghanistan War as examples of "tangible results."
"It was a concerted effort to put the relationship on a pragmatic, even keel, and it was a success," she said.
"It is true that we remain stuck with regard to some very important issues."
Farkas said U.S. officials have been "managing disagreement" with Russia on their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but still hope to "negotiate a political settlement" to end the two-year civil war in Syria that has claimed more than
100,000 lives. Experts have argued that a political solution is a dead end as long as Assad can resist the Syrian rebels.
However, human rights abuses in Russia have been noticeably absent from the administration’s Russian agenda, said Kyle Parker, policy adviser for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Parker recommended that the administration push Congress to expand the Magnitsky Act—a measure that denies visas to violators of human rights in Russia—as well as allocate more already-appropriated funding to Russian NGOs.
"These fundamental freedoms are not only American values but universal principles," he said.
"Keeping faith with those who peacefully seek to exercise their rights and who suffer for doing so isn’t a small thing."
The administration should also complete a more realistic appraisal of Russian leaders’ ideology, said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at Heritage.
Cohen said Russian leaders, particularly Putin, have adopted a "neo-imperial" ideology and have sought to crystallize "anti-Western, Russo-centric, Eurasianist, anti-democratic, and anti-American" sentiments among the Russian population. A majority of the Russian population still obtains their news from state-owned TV stations, which allows the Kremlin to disseminate propaganda and shape public opinion
This new ideology is reflected in Russia’s efforts to establish stronger ties with former Soviet states like Ukraine and Armenia and maintain a presence in the Mediterranean through its support of Syria, Cohen said. Yet opportunities still exist for economic cooperation between Russia and the United States.
"If the 160-year debate between the West and Eurasianists resolves or balances, there’s tens of billions of dollars in business we can do together," he said.
"The ball is in Mr. Putin’s court."