No One Said It Would Be Easy

Commentary | February 13, 2012

This article also appeared at the World Policy Journal.

After the lows of the U.S.-Russia relationship during the George W. Bush administration, no one thought that Barack Obama’s “reset” policy towards Russia would be easy. But does it have to be this hard?

The reset has been under fire in both Russia and the United States. On the Hill, many Republicans are eager to target a policy that has been such a central tenet of Obama’s foreign policy and to express their lingering mistrust and even outright hostility toward Russia. Russian critics have also pounded the reset, which is closely identified with President Dmitri Medvedev. Especially among Vladimir Putin’s circle, mistrust of the United States runs deep—and Putin himself has been a vocal opponent of his protégé’s policy. The main criticism is that Russia has given up too much and received too little in return, which ironically mirrors a common refrain in Washington: that Russia has given too little and the U.S. too much. In other words, many on both sides continue to view each other in zero-sum Cold War terms. 

While acknowledging that the reset was never meant to be a panacea, the Obama administration rightly points to its accomplishments—notably, the New START treaty, the Northern Distribution Network for resupplying efforts in Afghanistan, and Russian entry into the World Trade Organization.  These have (or should in the case of WTO accession if Congress normalizes the trade relationship with Russia) resulted in concrete gains for both countries. But Iran, missile defense, human rights concerns, Putin’s decision to return to the presidency, the December parliamentary elections in Russia and ensuing widespread protests, and now Syria are important conflict points in the relationship—ones that challenge the optimism of even the most ardent reset supporters.

All of which has led to a ratcheting up of fiery rhetoric. High-ranking U.S. officials publicly used words like “disgusting” and “a travesty” to describe Russia’s Syria veto. During the height of the Middle East uprisings last year,  Senator John McCain used Twitter to convey taunts like “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you,” and Putin responded in kind, calling McCain “nuts” and referencing McCain’s lengthy term as a prisoner of war. 

Even before Russia’s recent veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, ties had become increasingly fraught between Russia and the United States. A few recent examples: 

  • Missile defense has been the thorniest issue in the relationship. Russia insists that NATO’s U.S.-led European missile defense system could eventually be targeted against Russian missiles. Washington has repeatedly offered assurances that the system is not directed against Russia and suggests data exchanges but refuses to provide the written guarantee that Russia is asking for—even though Medvedev knows full well that such a guarantee would never survive congressional scrutiny. In another bit of ironic symmetry, at least one U.S. lawmaker asked Obama to provide written assurances that the United States would not share data with Russia. In response, Medvedev threatened again to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and even to withdraw from New START. The difficult missile defense talks had collapsed, he said.  
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the conduct of the December 2011 Duma elections, which were widely seen as tainted by irregularities at best and rigged at worst. When Russians took to the streets in protest, Putin accused Clinton of sending a signal to protestors and decried the “foreign money” that he claimed was being used to stir up trouble.
  • Washington’s new ambassador in Russia, Michael McFaul, was greeted by charges in the pro-government media that he had been sent to foment an Orange Revolution (and/or Arab Spring) in Russia. Shortly after he arrived, his meeting with opposition figures triggered even more criticism. 

The challenges continue to stack up. On Feb. 7 the Russian police announced that they were prepared to prosecute lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the age of 37 in pre-trial detention on trumped-up tax charges. Never before has Russia undertaken a posthumous prosecution. American critics point to the Magnitsky case as clear evidence of the Russian government’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law. Russian critics point to the U.S. focus on Magnitsky, and especially the legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate and House about the case, as another unacceptable example of American efforts to interfere in Russian domestic politics.

The biggest new challenge for the reset is managing the fallout of Russia’s veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. Russia is standing nearly alone in its support for Bashar al Assad. China also vetoed the resolution but has faced far less criticism. The probable reason: There are no striking photos of Chinese officials meeting with Assad as civilians continue to be killed in Homs, whereas Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a very public, well-documented, in-your-face trip to Damascus. Russia seems convinced it needs Assad in power to advance what it sees as its strategic and economic interests in the region  

If Assad manages to cling to power, the U.S.-Russia relationship will continue to suffer. Both Putin and Obama may be forced to decide if the practical gains of the reset outweigh this very big, very public falling out over Syria. If Assad is overthrown soon—especially before the U.S. presidential election—the damage to the reset is more likely to be manageable. But in that case Russia will be even more bitter about losing Assad and thus Syria given its lingering resentment about the toppling and execution of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. 

All of these tensions are playing out against the backdrop of an election year in both Russia and the United States. That Vladimir Putin will win the presidency of Russia again is not in doubt. What is in doubt—and surprisingly so—is whether Putin will retain enough credibility to effectively govern. For now, he is resorting to the familiar tactic of blaming Washington for his troubles. By so doing, he hopes to discredit many of the protesters and appeal to nationalist sentiments. That means he’s unlikely to ease up on his anti-American rhetoric anytime soon. 

Can the reset survive the next Putin presidency? What is clear is that Presidents Obama and Putin will not enjoy the same kind of relationship the Medvedev and Obama did. And if Obama loses the November presidential election, his victorious Republican successor—whoever that turns out to be—will be coming off a campaign filled with tough talk about Russia. 

But the reset was never set up to resolve all differences, only to work on improving the U.S.-Russia relationship in the areas where their interests overlap. While Putin and Obama will never end up as best buddies, both are practical politicians. And practical considerations are likely to push them in the direction of salvaging the reset. Any new Republican president would be likely to begin the process of abandoning some of his harshest campaign rhetoric once he is faced with the practical task of governing. That is, unless some surprising development, most likely a dramatic new twist in Russia’s domestic political drama, throws all rational calculations out the window. So it seems safe to say it’s too early to write off the reset…sort of. 

Jacqueline McLaren Miller is a Senior Associate in the EastWest Institute's Strategic Trust-Building Initiative, where she runs the U.S. and WMD programs.