Why a strong American foreign policy will lead to better Russian relations

John Jordan Board Member, Hoover Institution
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Images of the grand spectacle marking the opening of the Winter Olympics — complete with only four of the five Olympic Rings successfully lighting, uninhabitable hotels bathrooms spewing yellow water, and international uproar over the killing of thousands of stray dogs — have dominated coverage of the Winter Games in Sochi. Only the Russians could spend $51 billion in an effort to shine on the world stage, and get this kind of result.

This organizational debacle notwithstanding, Russia has successfully regained her status as a major world power, hindering American foreign policy and embarrassing President Obama in the process. The details of America’s failure to deal with Syria and Iran are beyond the scope of this article. However, mistaken assumptions about the Russian psyche and Russian perspectives on America’s foreign policy failures represent the loss of an opportunity to bring stability to an increasingly violent and uncertain world.

Russia’s history is perhaps the bloodiest of any nation on earth. In the past century alone, the Bolshevik Revolution, a civil war, two world wars, Stalinist repression and decades of Cold War deprivation collectively cost nearly 100 million lives. This history has shaped Russians’ worldview in ways that are beyond the American experience. And this horrific legacy has resulted in a near-obsession with elevating the stature of the Rodina; “motherland,” for Russian leaders reared during the Soviet era.

Illustrative of this mentality is the incident when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev remarked to his son that he felt like a “cricket” when President Eisenhower arrived at the 1955 Geneva summit in an aircraft nearly twice the size of his. When Khrushchev visited the United States four years later, he insisted on flying in a massive TU-114 turboprop that stood fifty feet off the ground, despite protests from his own staff that the craft was not airworthy. The Soviet military was forced to station ships along the airplane’s trans-Atlantic route just in case it crashed, and technicians were ordered on board to monitor the craft’s wings for cracks. Khrushchev was willing to risk his very life, just to one up his American counterpart.

So defining is Russia’s need to project strength that Western notions of rights and freedoms drop to the bottom of the list of considerations shaping its politics. Recent surveys show that nearly half of Russians believe Stalin – who murdered more than 30 million of his own citizens – played a “positive role” in the nation’s history, and was a “wise leader” who “brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity.”

Americans consider President Vladimir Putin to be a corrupt autocrat. His public agrees, and couldn’t care less. The former KGB Colonel maintains approval ratings of 65 percent – equaling President Obama’s in the afterglow of his 2008 election – by going to extraordinary lengths to show how tough he is.

The success of American leaders in dealing with the Russians tracks perfectly with how strong they are perceived to be by Russian leaders.  President Carter was not taken seriously by the Soviets, because they regarded him as weak. Accordingly, the Soviets were confident there would be no repercussions when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979; an act of war that ultimately resulted in the deaths of one million Afghan civilians. President Carter’s response – a mere boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow – further confirmed the Russian view of him.

In contrast, the Politburo saw that Ronald Reagan meant business – he said what he meant and meant what he said, backing threats with military might. The result: two groundbreaking nuclear treaties and victory in the Cold War, all within two years of Reagan’s departure from office. Similarly, when German unification and the freedom of Eastern Europe depended on Soviet acquiescence, George H.W. Bush knew not to rub Russian noses in their Cold War loss. Because he was respectful of Russian national pride – and negotiated with the Soviets from a position of strength – they permitted the orderly and peaceful disintegration of the Eastern Bloc.

Fast forward to President Obama’s proclamation of a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations – a phrase that is synonymous with “forget the past,” to a nation whose culture and leader is defined by it. To the Russians, a “reset” is nothing less than a full-throated proclamation of weakness. It has emboldened Putin to block America’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program; to provide the Assad regime with diplomatic escape as it coldly slaughtered 1,400 civilians – including more than 400 children – with weapons of mass destruction; and to harbor Edward Snowden, the fugitive ex-NSA analyst.  And, in the ultimate “in-your-face” gesture, to brag about it all in the opinion pages of the New York Times.

Make no mistake: Putin will survive the darkened rings, stinking yellow water, and “dog-gate” with his nation’s full support, and continue his efforts to rebuild Russia’s status as a major power. A resurgent and responsible Russia could actually be in the interests of the United States and the world, acting as a counterweight to China and a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.  But it will take a realistic and adroitly executed foreign policy – predicated first on being taken seriously rather than “resets”  – to turn this re-assertion of national pride into a positive force for global peace and stability.