On Swaps and Resets


The Kremlin is upset—but not exceedingly so—at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for pointing out the obvious: Russian troops are occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the ceasefire agreement that ended its brief war with Georgia. The deal, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, required the Soviet military to withdraw to prewar boundaries. Instead, it is has built permanent bases in the breakaway republics.

"I want to say publicly what I have said privately," Clinton said in Tbilisi. "I came to Georgia with a clear message from President Obama and myself. The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States does not recognise spheres of influence." Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, shrugged his shoulders, telling reporters that the administration was just satiating American conservatives: "We understand that the Obama administration has to save face [in the former Soviet Union] and head off its domestic critics on the right."

Vladamir Putin's response was noticeably restrained: "While some think South Ossetia is occupied, others think it is liberated." The message from Moscow is, more of less, this: The Obama administration's "reset" is paying dividends for us—NATO membership for Georgia is unlikely in the near future, missile defense is a dead issue, the START treaty was but a minor concession—so why respond to Clinton's empty assurances to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili?

And now that the administration has agreed to a spy swap with Moscow, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder says the transfer of Russian agents for a Russian national accused of spying for the U.S. is "a sign of a healthy relationship," a sign that "the reset is working." He argues further that "Ties between the CIA and the SVR are actually solid; the two recently shared intelligence about Iran's nuclear program."

I'm not willing to take Ambinder's word on the flourishing relationship between the CIA and SVR (nor am I willing to take the CIA's word on, well, anything), and it is unclear if the shared intelligence is accurate or worth the paper it's printed on. Nor is it clear that any unspecified "intelligence sharing" on Iran justifies a "solid relationship" verdict. But to suggest that spy swaps indicate a "healthy relationship" between two rival superpowers is to suggest that United States had a healthy relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. In the past, it meant quite the opposite.