President Barack Obama’s new secretary of state, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), is unlikely to change the White House’s current relations with Russia and East Central Europe. A staunch supporter of Obama’s “reset” policy towards Russia, Kerry nonetheless has been critical of Russia’s support for Belarus’s dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka and its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
One of the most controversial aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy has been what his conservative critics see as an excessively friendly stance towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In an interview for the Polish radio station RMF FM, Professor Richard Pipes – one of the academic world’s foremost experts on Russia, Ronald Reagan’s adviser on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and a native of Poland – claimed “Obama has improved relations with Russia at the expense of relations with everyone else.” Meanwhile, during last year’s presidential campaign the third presidential debate that focused on foreign policy, Obama’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused the incumbent of wearing “rose-colored glasses” with regards to Putin.
Indeed, compared with the presidency of George W. Bush, Obama has warmed up to Putin and appears to be somewhat apathetic to the United States’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe. In August 2008, Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic to install an anti-missile defence shield in those countries. Although from Washington’s perspective the aim of shield was to intercept and destroy Iranian nuclear weapons, the Poles and Czechs had hoped it would protect them against an increasingly aggressive Russia. Poland’s foreign minister Radosław Sikorski echoed the sentiments of many East Central Europeans when he said that Russia could never invade any country with American troops on its soil. On September 17th 2009 (ironically the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland), however, President Obama called Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to tell him he was going to cancel the anti-missile defence shield. The Obama White House’s motivation was to avoid a confrontation with Russia.
Further complicating the matter was the fact that while presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had supported the development of democracy in Belarus, this has not been the case with Obama. Whereas Clinton and Bush publicly met with Belarusian dissidents and pressed sanctions against the Lukashenka dictatorship, Obama has not met with dissidents from the former Soviet republic even once. By contrast, in December 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Belarusian counterpart Syarhei Martynau held a meeting closed to journalists to proclaim the beginning of a “tighter friendship”. This was the first time that such high-ranking American and Belarusian officials had made such a joint statement, and the event was heralded in the pro-Lukashenka press.
As Obama begins a new term with Senator John Kerry as the new secretary of state, is there hope that the American president can improve the US’s relations with its East Central European allies and adopt a more critical attitude towards Putin?
During Barack Obama’s first term in office, Senator Kerry was a prominent supporter of the 44th American president’s “restart policy” towards Russia. Kerry was an opponent of the US building an anti-missile defence shield in East Central Europe. He was one of the authors of the 2010 new START negotiations that would ultimately cause the US’s nuclear arsenal to be on par with that of Russia. He supported Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization, although many economists and political leaders in East Central Europe also supported this as a means of increasing their access to the lucrative Russian trade market.
However, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 112th Congress, Kerry tried to block passage of the Sergey Magnitsky Act. This bipartisan bill sought to castigate the Russian officials who were responsible for the death of Sergey Magnitsky, an auditor and attorney who revealed fraud in the treasury of the Russian Federation when he worked for the Russian branch of Hermitage Capital Management. Magnitsky was arrested on false charges and tortured and beaten to death by guards in 2009. Magnitsky has since become an icon of the struggle for a more democratic and transparent Russia. Kerry’s reluctance to pursue justice for him raises questions about how committed Kerry is to the spread of liberty in Putin’s Russia.
As the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, Kerry criticised Putin for not “stabilising” Chechnya to make Russia safe from terrorists. While Kerry was absolutely correct in condemning the terrorist violence of Chechen rebels, it is not difficult to see that the Russia military has engaged in gross abuses of Chechen civilians’ basic human rights. Furthermore, since Woodrow Wilson’s staunch support for the nationhood of the oppressed peoples of the former Ottoman, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, the US has supported captive nations’ right to self-determination. Within this historical context one wonders why Kerry only deplores the violence of the Chechen rebels, but not the oppression by Russia which leads them to that type of violence.
Thus, unsurprisingly, the response from Moscow to Kerry’s nomination has been largely positive. Already after Obama’s re-election in November 2012, which was greeted with elation in the Kremlin (Putin called within a few hours to invite Obama to visit Russia), an anonymous high-ranking official told the British newspaper The Telegraph that Putin’s inner circle prefers Senator Kerry over Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s successor. Indeed, shortly after the US Senate confirmed Kerry’s nomination, Putin praised the new secretary of state, confidently predicting that he will “provide good support for the development of interaction between our countries, and help give bilateral cooperation a positive dynamic”.
More encouragingly, however, Senator Kerry co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post with Senator Joe Lieberman in which he called for a “strong and uncompromising” response to the Belarusian regime on behalf of both the United States and European Union. Specifically, Kerry calls for tight sanctions against Belarus and the prohibition of the West's business dealings with Belarus’s petroleum companies which help finance the dictatorship. Kerry and Lieberman write that Russia should join the US and the EU in promoting freedom in Belarus. Given Putin’s chummy relations with Lukashenka (last year, Putin proposed a euro-style currency union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus) such a stance is bold.
In September 2008 Senator John Kerry also co-sponsored the Kerry-Smith Resolution along with Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), which pledged that Russia comply with its ceasefire with Georgia one month after it invaded the Caucasian republic. The Senate resolution also proclaimed the US's support for Georgia’s accession into NATO.
If President Obama’s policy towards Russia changes in his second term in office, it is unlikely to be the result of his new secretary of state John Kerry. A look at John Kerry’s political past indicates that the Massachusetts senator is a supporter of Obama’s “reset policy” towards Russia. However, at least with regards to Russia’s support for the Belarusian dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenka and its invasion of Georgia, perhaps Kerry will pursue a harder line towards Putin.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student studying international relations and European studies at the George Washington University. His academic interests include Second World War history, Polish-Jewish relations, and Christianity in modern Europe.