U.S.-Russia: Bye Bye Reset

Commentary | February 11, 2013

When Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, he promised to make a dramatic improvement in U.S.-Russia relations a top priority. And by announcing the now-famous “reset,” his administration delivered a strong signal of his desire to make good on that promise—to the delight of the Kremlin. But now at the start of Obama’s second term, his administration is hardly bothering to mask its growing frustration with Vladimir Putin—and the Russian president is responding more than in kind. As a result, relations are distinctly chilly. In fact, in discussions about Washington’s current foreign policy agenda, Russia is notably absent, much less a top priority.

What went wrong? Predictably, the two sides blame each other. But, without a doubt, the trigger for the now seemingly endless exchange of mutual recriminations and tit-for-tat punitive measures were two key events: the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act, despite efforts by the administration to prevent such an outcome, and Putin’s continued crackdown on dissent at home.

All of which is already making people forget that the reset was far from a complete failure. The policy was effective in improving the tone of discourse and widening the areas on which U.S. and Russian policymakers met and talked regularly, especially through the mechanism of the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC). Both the United States and Russia could point to some significant accomplishments. Obama got New START, cooperation on Afghanistan, and initial if fleeting cooperation on Iran. Russia got its long sought-after WTO accession, graduation from Jackson-Vanik, the 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, and the foreign policy attention that it thought it deserved.

The price the U.S. Congress imposed for graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik and granting permanent normal trade relations was the Magnitsky Act. The Russian Duma responded with the Dima Yakovlev Act, which barred the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. The linkage by the U.S. Congress of the economic relationship to human rights was, for some, “weird,” as U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul described it. It was not, however, unprecedented as the Jackson-Vanik amendment made the same linkage.

But linking the fate of Russian children stuck in orphanages to the overall bilateral relationship was a new twist, which critics claimed was unusually cruel. The Yakovlev Act is named after a Russian child adopted by American parents and forgotten in a car for hours—an absolute tragedy. But the parents in this case, and the parents in the other cases where adopted Russian children have been abused and mistreated, were not government officials. Many Russian protesters charge that the Yakovlev Act is a desperate and cynical ploy, as were Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s tweets about child abuse in the United States.

Even before the Magnitsky Act was passed, the Kremlin had extended its domestic crackdown to any groups with foreign ties. NGOs that accept foreign funding are now required to register as foreign agents, a loaded term in Russia; USAID was expelled from Russia; and the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute are moving their staffs out as well. In utter frustration at the fragile state of civil rights and liberties in Russia, the United States recently pulled out of the Civil Society Working Group of the BPC.

The policy repercussions of the weakening bilateral relationship have extended beyond the human rights sphere: Russia recently declined to renew Nunn-Lugar and halted some counternarcotics cooperation governed by a 2002 agreement (although other avenues of counternarcotics cooperation, especially in regard to Afghanistan, are ongoing).

There still are areas where both sides can continue cooperative efforts. Arms control, nonproliferation, narcotrafficking, and expanding bilateral economic ties are all areas where there was good cooperation in the first term and overlapping interests going forward. But in Washington, the view that Russia is simply not serious about being constructive in the international arena seems to be gaining more traction and policymakers are finding it impossible to overlook Russia’s domestic politics.

If Russia continues respond to U.S. “meddling” in Russian domestic affairs by targeting NGOs, opposition leaders and orphans, it is hard to see how the relationship can return to the effective working relationship of Obama’s first term. At that time, Washington and Moscow agreed to effectively disagree on some issues while pursuing cooperative policies on others where their interests coincided. But Putin may not want to return to the same level of cooperation. The United States’ policy responses have become a convenient rallying cry for trying to build support for continued tough measures against domestic opposition forces, invoking the classic claim that Russia must defend itself against its external enemies.

Four years ago, the reset was supposed to ensure that Russia returned to what it saw as its rightful place as a key concern of U.S. foreign policy. Today, the domestic circumstances in Russia have changed significantly and so has the mood in Washington. Neither Russia nor the United States looks either willing or able to invest in a vigorous bilateral relationship at the official level.