The Reset: Down - but not Out

Commentary | August 16, 2011

During Wall Street’s latest gyrations, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the United States a parasite on the global economy.  In response to the U.S. Senate’s recent unanimous resolution condemning Russia’s continued post-war military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, President Dmitry Medvedev possibly called U.S. senators senile—or maybe it was just senior citizens. Either way, you get the point. And in the most recent spat over U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, labeled U.S. Republican Senators Jon Kyl and Mark Kirk “monsters of the Cold War.”

By every rhetorical indication, the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations is in trouble again. In fact, many observers in both Russia and the United States are proclaiming, sometimes jubilantly, that the reset is doomed. But such a judgment is decidedly premature. The reset survives—and, despite profound disagreements, the two sides could still find it in their interests to work together on a broad range of issues and temper their rhetoric, trying to keep emotions in check going into an election year.

That won’t be easy, especially when dramatic human rights cases like the death in police custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer working for a Western investment firm, are triggering new angry recriminations.  After he accused police and interior ministry officials of perpetrating a $230 million fraud against the Russian government, Magnitsky was jailed by those same authorities for alleged tax evasion. An investigative commission has now pinned the responsibility for his death on two prison doctors, but human rights activists charge that this is only an attempt to cover-up the complicity of higher officials in his brutal mistreatment that led to his death. Frustrated with what they saw as the Obama administration’s weak response, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation named after Magnitsky to ban Russian officials connected to the case from traveling to the United States as well as freezing any of their U.S.-held assets. Similar bills have made headway in Europe and Canada.

Russia’s establishment has responded with mixed signals about the case, promoting some of the officials involved while claiming it will make sure that any abuses will be punished. But there has been nothing ambiguous about its reaction to the proposed bills on Capitol Hill. After the State Department quietly enacted a travel ban on certain Russian officials, Russia instituted a tit-for-tat visa ban on U.S. officials, allegedly targeting those responsible for the extradition of Russian arms deal Viktor Bout from Thailand. (Neither government has released the list of banned officials.) And the Obama administration sent a detailed memo to Senators raising its concerns with the legislation. Instead of seeing the Obama administration’s actions as an attempt to straddle the controversy and soften the Congressional legislation, Kremlin officials argued that this proved that they couldn’t count on the White House either. In other words, forget the reset.

This is far from the only issue bedeviling U.S.-Russia relations.  The ongoing application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, which links trade relations to emigration practices, is a long-standing source of Russian ire (see earlier article).  Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have been unable to get Congress to graduate Russia from the amendment and grant permanent normal trade relations. Ballistic missile defense also continues to spark controversy. Obama’s decision to move away from Bush’s planned deployment of assets in Poland and the Czech Republic provided just a momentary lull. And the lingering fallout from Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia continues to provide ample opportunities for mutual recriminations, including a leaked U.S. intelligence report linking a Russian intelligence official to a bombing near the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi.

Despite these contentious issues, the reset has scored some significant successes. To be sure, it was slow to deliver on its initial promises. The negotiations for New START dragged on for over a year, allowing START to expire. After finally concluding negotiations with Russia, the Obama administration had another hard-fought battle in the Senate to get the treaty ratified. But the entry into force of the New START treaty was one of the major foreign policy successes for the Obama administration and its reset policy.

There has also been progress in addressing other strategic U.S. concerns, most significantly Iran and Afghanistan. Washington secured Russian agreement on both over-flight rights for lethal cargo and overland transit of non-lethal cargo to resupply the Afghanistan effort. This took pressure off the Pakistan supply route—now estimated to be used for only 35 percent of supply efforts as compared to about 90 percent two years ago.  And Russia recently agreed to expand the distribution network by allowing two-way transit and overland shipment of lethal goods.  The United States was also able to gain Russian and Chinese support for sanctions against Iran because of that country’s continued intransigence on international inspection of its nuclear enrichment facilities.

The benefits of the reset have been mutual, as demonstrated by New START. Moscow also had reason to be particularly pleased when the U. S. implemented the 123 civilian nuclear agreement, laying out the parameters of peaceful nuclear cooperation with Russia that needed to be in place before U.S. and Russian companies could expand commercial collaboration. After the Russian invasion of Georgia, it had been withdrawn from congressional consideration. Another success of the reset is firm U.S. backing for Russia’s World Trade Organization aspirations. It is expected that Russia’s tortured 18-year application process may finally come to an end at this December’s WTO ministerial in Geneva. Russia is the largest economy outside of the organization and Medvedev’s ambitious modernization program needs the benefits of WTO membership

What both sides need to understand is that the reset offers the best hope of maintaining cooperation on key areas of mutual concern and keeping inevitable disagreements within reasonable bounds.  To that end, leaders in Moscow and Washington should deliver that message to their highly skeptical domestic constituencies more often.  The Obama administration needs to undertake a sustained effort with a Congress that is still deeply suspicious of Russia and could still undermine the reset, especially during an election year. And Russian leaders should think twice before they engage in the kind of rhetorical overkill that only fuels Cold War thinking.  Angry rhetoric won’t disappear anytime soon, but it needs to be kept in check. Otherwise, both sides are likely to lose out.