Twenty years ago, the world watched the Soviet Union fall. The regime that was “planted by bayonets,” as President Ronald Reagan once described it, did not take root, and ultimately the empire that once walled itself off from the West with an Iron Curtain could not shield its people from seeing the shining light of democracy.
Next Tuesday, when the Republican presidential candidates come together to discuss foreign policy and national security in a debate presented by The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute on CNN, they should remember the lessons that the fall of the USSR taught us, but they should also look ahead to the challenges that remain in Russia and around the world today. Chief among those challenges are those brought about by the Obama Administration’s pursuit of a “reset” in relations with Russia.
In his “Evil Empire” speech to the British House of Commons in 1982, President Reagan quoted Winston Churchill, who said, ”I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines. But what we have to consider here today while time remains is the permanent prevention of war and the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries.” Reagan said, “Well, this is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace. It may not be easy to see; but I believe we live now at a turning point.”
Reagan was among those who led the Western world when it stood at that turning point. Victory in the Cold War came, and the reasons for the USSR’s collapse were many, ranging from its mania for top-down economic control, to its oppression of its own people, to its efforts to hold an empire in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, to the courage and leadership of Russian dissidents and Western leaders. President Reagan was among those leaders who saw the evil of the Soviet regime for what it was and sought to roll back the communist advance. He confronted the Soviet threat head on, and ultimately the West won victory in the Cold War.
By contrast, the Obama Administration is failing to see the true character of those who lead Russia today. Indeed, the victories of 1991 have not yet been secured and are under threat. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–OH) recently delivered a blistering critique of the President’s “reset” strategy and painted a picture of where Russia stands today:
Over the last two and a half years, Russia has been the beneficiary of American outreach and engagement. [Yet it] has continued to expand its physical, political, and economic presence…under the guise of…a ‘sphere of influence.’
Within Russia, control is the order of the day, with key industries nationalized, the independent media repressed, and the loyal opposition beaten and jailed. Russia uses natural resources as a political weapon. And it plays ball with unstable and dangerous regimes.
Heritage vice president Kim Holmes says the Obama Administration’s posture toward Russia has failed because the President expected more from the Russians than they are willing to give under any circumstance. And that’s despite entering into the dangerously flawed New START missile defense treaty and canceling key missile defenses in Europe. Holmes notes that the “reset” policy is a failure because it assumes that Russia’s leaders share our interests when, in fact, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have far different goals: amassing hundreds of billions of dollars and protecting it indefinitely. Holmes explains the impact this has on Russian-U.S. relations:
At the end of the day, Russia looks around the world and sees enemies, potential rivals, and clients. That’s why it mistreats neighbors and why so many of them distrust it. That’s why it desperately needs America to pay homage to it with concessions in arms control negotiations and cancelled missile defense programs. Its attitude toward the U.S. belies a calculated set of self-interested moves to gain financial and geopolitical advantage over other nations.
The United States–and those who seek the presidency–should understand Russia’s reality and the fact that Putin and those in power operate under a different set of rules. As such, offering up concessions on treaties like New START sacrifices U.S. security in favor of Russia’s gain. Today, The Heritage Foundation will host a special event taking a deeper look at these issues in “Legacies and Lessons from the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the USSR.” (Watch online today from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM.)
And while the world remembers the fall of the Soviet Union, it is worth remembering that communist tyranny still exists in the world today, only a few miles from America’s shore. Despite the continued oppression of Cuba’s people by its communist regime, journalists and the Obama Administration alike pay it little notice. Heritage will address this subject, too, in today’s event “The Unwritten Story: How the Media and the Obama Administration Overlook Cuba’s Wave of Repression.”
Though the communist ideology was dealt a significant blow 20 years ago when the Soviet Union fell, freedom for the Russian people is by no means guaranteed as the country rapidly backslides into autocracy. Likewise, with an oppressed people suffering under the Cuban regime, America’s leaders must take notice and speak loudly in defense of freedom while also standing up for America’s interests in the face of tyranny.