Putin and Obama

Beyond the Russian Reset

June 25, 2013
Samuel Charap
This article was originally published by The National Interest.

WITH THE recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, observers in both Washington and Moscow have remarked upon the cyclical nature of this key bilateral relationship. As Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian commentator, noted in late 2012, “If we look at the relationship since 1991, it’s the same cycle all the time, between kind words and inspiration and deep crisis. Yeltsin, Clinton, Bush, Putin, Obama, it’s the same pattern.” Indeed, the phases of high hopes and expectations in the years 1991–1994, 2000–2003 and 2009–2011—followed by deep disappointment in the intervening and subsequent years—do seem to represent a cyclical pattern.

But viewing U.S.-Russian relations in terms of cycles or patterns is misleading. It implies that the relationship is governed by immutable forces beyond the control of policy makers—like the laws of physics or the business cycle. But the problems in U.S.-Russian relations are man-made, and therefore their resolution lies in the hands of the respective political establishments in Washington and Moscow. That is not to say it would be easy to fix them, or that such a fix is likely anytime soon. In fact, the opposite seems true. However, since agency, not structure, is the key determinant, policy makers bear the responsibility for improving this state of affairs and have it within their power to do so.

To understand better the reasons for the ebbs and flows in bilateral relations, it’s important to recognize the peculiar way in which both sides assess them. Officials and nongovernmental observers in both countries measure the relationship between the two countries by looking at the “deliverables” it produces. In other words, when the two sides are forging new agreements or resolving global challenges, their relationship is seen to be improving. When they are not concluding new bilateral deals and differ on significant global issues, the relationship is perceived as deteriorating.

The “reset” period (2009–2011), so dubbed following Vice President Joe Biden’s invocation of this metaphor at the Munich Security Conference in February 2009, is a case in point. Those years saw major deliverables produced at an impressive pace. The key agreements signed in that period include: the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START); the so-called 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation; agreements on Afghanistan transit, including the rail-based Northern Distribution Network and an overflight arrangement that as of January 2013 allowed for more than 2,500 flights across Russian air space carrying more than 460,000 U.S. military personnel; an amendment to the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, providing for the safe disposal of enough weapons-grade plutonium for seventeen thousand nuclear warheads; close cooperation in the effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including unprecedentedly comprehensive UN Security Council sanctions and work toward a diplomatic solution; Russia’s cancellation of its contract with Iran for the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, which, if delivered, would have been highly destabilizing; Russian WTO membership, eighteen years after it initiated its bid, in large part due to significant progress on bilateral trade issues; and an agreement on visas that makes it easier for Americans and Russians to visit and do business in each other’s countries. Cooperation increased across a wide range of issues addressed by the nearly twenty working groups of the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which was created in mid-2009, including on counterterrorism (such as joint exercises simulating a hijacked plane over the Bering Strait), global health, energy efficiency and counternarcotics measures. Outside those institutionalized channels, deliverables also came in the form of Russian helicopters for both the Afghan National Army and for peacekeeping in Sudan; the positive outcome of the NATO-Russia Council’s summit at Lisbon in 2010; and the first joint Antarctic inspections.

Many of these deliverables were critically important for both U.S. and Russian national security. Indeed, that was probably the most productive period of cooperation between the two countries in the history of their post-Soviet relationship. But the use of deliverables as a gauge of bilateral ties betrays the underlying fragility of the relationship itself. When the two capitals are not focused on deliverables, more fundamental problems in the relationship rise to the surface.

The most corrosive of these is the reality that elements within both countries’ national-security establishments continue to view each other as adversaries, almost twenty-five years after the Cold War ended. These attitudes are most overtly manifest in the persistence of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) as the paradigm that defines the nuclear relationship. The notion that only guaranteed retaliation prevents one side from threatening the other’s interests seems like an absurd anachronism in a world where the bipolar standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union is a distant memory. But the worst-case-scenario assumptions it creates remain a persistent part of today’s security dialogue. Take the current dispute over missile defense. If we strip away all the coded rhetoric, Russia essentially is asking for guarantees that it can effectively annihilate the United States even after Washington attempts to take out Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials issue repeated reassurances to Moscow that it could still destroy the United States even if Washington tried to neutralize Russia’s hundreds of deployed strategic nuclear weapons through a “bolt from the blue” disarming first strike. The mere existence of this kind of dialogue speaks volumes about mutual suspicion of intentions.

WITHOUT DELIVERABLES, both sides turn their attention to the yawning gap between Washington’s expectations about Russia’s post-Soviet political development and Russian realities that have not conformed to those expectations. Many key U.S. partners have far worse human-rights records and not even the modicum of democratic procedure that exists in Russia today—Saudi Arabia and China being just two examples. However, due to a combination of Russia’s own international commitments made in the 1990s and American and European expectations created by the “transition” paradigm that posited a smooth shift from Soviet Communism to market democracy, Russia’s democratic shortcomings have a far greater impact on its relations with the United States. The commitments primarily stem from Russia’s membership in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a grouping that grew out of the Helsinki accords, and the Council of Europe, a regional human-rights body. Both created additional obligations regarding, and intensified oversight of, human rights and democracy in Russia.

In the absence of major new deliverables, the U.S.-Russian rivalry in post-Soviet Eurasia also comes to the fore. Some U.S. discomfort with Russia’s relationships in its neighborhood is certainly warranted. Since 1991, Russia often has acted with a heavy hand. But it was clear by the end of the 1990s that Washington’s nightmare scenario—Russia rolling back the sovereignty of the newly independent states and forming a new anti-Western bloc—was not going to materialize. Today, the U.S. objective of “bolstering sovereignty” in Russia’s “near abroad” devolves at times into balancing games and outright paranoia about any degree of Russian influence in the region. And Washington often seems to operate on the assumption that, if nations in the region cooperate with Moscow, the result inevitably will be the imposition of decisions on Russia’s neighbors against their will. Many in Moscow believe Washington lends its support to “anti-Russian” politicians in order to limit Russian influence. In other words, Moscow sees the specter of containment when Washington thinks it is simply backing freely elected leaders.

The reset, despite all the deliverables outlined above, did not address these fundamental flaws in the relationship. In retrospect, that period was remarkable in that it demonstrated that the U.S.-Russian relationship can produce a large number of mutually beneficial agreements even without any serious reconciliation effort.

But it is important to note what brought about the uptick in deliverables in 2009–2011. The term used here and elsewhere to describe the U.S.-Russian relationship in that period—the reset—is really more accurately a description of what the Obama administration did upon taking office: it significantly changed U.S. policy toward Russia. The George W. Bush administration’s Russia policy, especially in the second term, reflected a lack of interest in bilateral cooperation on the international-security issues central to the relationship, particularly arms control. During that period, the United States also tried to influence Russian policies by linking unrelated issues. For example, after the August 2008 war in Georgia, the administration pulled the 123 agreement out of the congressional review process. Also, the Bush administration, or elements within it, pursued policies seemingly designed to antagonize Russia gratuitously. The geopolitical gamesmanship following the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine that culminated in the NATO Bucharest Summit Declaration is probably the most significant case in point. That document, a product of direct negotiations among heads of state, declared unequivocally that Ukraine and Georgia “will become” NATO members. It’s easy to see how Moscow read that as reflecting NATO’s intent to impose membership on Russia’s neighbors, regardless of their preparedness for membership or their populations’ support for it.

Upon taking office, the Obama administration promptly reversed these trends. The new president’s “Prague agenda” of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control, as well as his determination to pursue a multilateral solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, generated significantly more engagement among senior decision makers of the two countries. The Obama team also eschewed linkages of unrelated issues, which were judged to have been counterproductive based on Bush’s track record. In the case of the linkage between Georgia and the 123 agreement noted above, the outcome was no movement on Russia’s actions in Georgia and no U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation. So the administration resolved that it would not let disagreements over one set of issues preclude cooperation on other issues. But senior officials also made clear they would not bargain away unrelated issues merely for the sake of cooperation with Russia. Obama continued to articulate America’s interest in Russia’s democratic development, and he supported Russian civil society even as his government worked with Russian officials on key international-security issues. The administration also, headlines to the contrary notwithstanding, did not let engagement with Russia affect relations with U.S. allies or other partners in Europe and Eurasia.

Finally, the Obama team was not interested in playing “great games” or pursuing policies that were gratuitously confrontational toward Russia. Regarding the U.S. military facility at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport, which is used as a stopping-off point for U.S. soldiers and matériel on their way to Afghanistan, the administration sought Russian buy-in, rather than treating the arrangements as an exclusively bilateral issue with the Kyrgyzstanis. Previously, this had led Moscow to suspect that the United States intended to either stay there forever or to use Manas as part of an anti-Russia encirclement strategy. Michael McFaul, who became U.S. ambassador to Moscow in late 2011 after serving as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff following Obama’s inauguration, recalled in an April 2011 speech that, during Obama’s first meeting with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, Obama made clear he did not care to engage in great-power rivalry:

He said, “Help me understand, President Medvedev, why you want us to leave Manas, because what are our soldiers doing? They are flying into Afghanistan after a short amount of time in Kyrgyzstan and they are fighting people that if we weren’t fighting them you would have to be fighting them.”

The paradox of the “post-reset” period is that the main factor that allowed for all the deliverables of the reset—the Obama administration’s course correction—remained unchanged while the relationship itself deteriorated. Instead, other factors were to blame. First, the flood of deliverables slowed to a trickle. Given how many of them were achieved in the first few years of the reset, that pace could not be sustained. The agreements of that period were anything but low-hanging fruit, despite some critics’ claims. Many of the most significant ones resulted from months of hard work, and nearly all of them seemed impossible in 2008. Still, they were “lower hanging” than the issues on which the two sides are seeking agreement today, particularly missile defense and Syria.

CLEARLY, VLADIMIR Putin’s return to the presidency has had a negative impact on the relationship as well. Immediately following his inauguration in May 2012, Putin did not take deliberate steps to worsen the relationship. But he demonstrated no interest in investing in it. Indeed, he signaled in a number of ways, most noticeably with his no-show at the Camp David G-8 meeting that month, that relations with the United States were not a foreign-policy priority. Putin’s actions to slam shut the opening in Russian public life that had emerged in recent years also dragged down the relationship. It is simply more complicated for any U.S. administration to do business with Russia under these circumstances.

Although his relationship with President George W. Bush, especially after 9/11, demonstrates that he is not ideologically opposed to U.S.-Russian cooperation, Putin is clearly fed up with certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy, such as what he perceives as meddling in Russian domestic politics and a U.S. habit of toppling sitting governments that disagree with it. And he has signaled his frustration to Washington in no uncertain terms, through recent actions such as the ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children in retaliation for the Magnitsky legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress late last year. He further worsened the atmosphere in bilateral relations by imposing additional restrictions on Americans working in Russian NGOs and through his apparent sanctioning of government-affiliated mouthpieces’ and media outlets’ virulent anti-Americanism.

Putin’s actions have called into question one of the central tenets of the Obama administration’s reset: that working on multiple agreements, increasing the number of contacts and broadening the relationship (including through the Bilateral Presidential Commission) would allow the two countries to make progress on the long-standing disagreements outlined above. As McFaul stated in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in December 2010, “The trick is to be able to have a longer horizon so that every move . . . is not seen as zero-sum, but you can play a win-win over the long haul. . . . And you know, we’re just midstream in what I hope to be a long game, in terms of this particular policy.” But this hope for a long game has been dashed in recent months.

So why did the long laundry list of reset-era deliverables fail to create conditions for addressing the underlying problems in the relationship? The most important reason is also the explanation for Putin’s turn to anti-Americanism. Over the past twelve to eighteen months, the foundational pillar of the political system Putin constructed—consistently high levels of popular support for the leadership—began to crumble. Some astute analysts, particularly Mikhail Dmitriev and his colleagues at the Center for Strategic Research, saw the trend in focus groups as early as two years ago, but the problem only became visible when Putin announced that he had decided to run for the presidency again in what Russians dubbed a rokirovka or “castling move” on September 24, 2011. That decision, which marked the complete personalization of Russian politics, delegitimized both the presidency and political institutions more broadly in the eyes of Russia’s most creative and talented citizens, particularly the urban middle class. Putin lost these voters, many of whom had supported him because of the prosperity associated with his tenure. But these Russians think of themselves as Europeans, not subjects of a personalistic kleptocracy, and the rokirovka seemed to be leading to precisely that.

Instead of boosting stability, which seems to have been the intent, the rokirovkatransformed the so-called Putin majority—a coalition comprised of economically dynamic, middle-class Russians along with two more conservative social groups, beneficiaries of the state (such as government employees and pensioners) and rural heartland voters—into a much more reactionary, paternalistic Putin plurality. This shift in domestic political alignments changed the calculus of the Russian leadership; it now felt compelled to employ anti-Americanism in order to mobilize this narrower support base. This antagonism toward the United States also is used to create a siege mentality in the public discourse, allowing the government to label its political opponents as traitors. This trope of the “enemy at the gates” was used extensively in 2007–2008, at another low point in U.S.-Russian relations, and it is now being used again. In short, as a result of its increasingly contested domestic political environment, the Russian leadership often sees the bilateral relationship as a tool of domestic politics rather than an end in itself or even a means of addressing Russia’s global challenges. At those moments, the reset period’s track record of cooperation does not affect the decision-making equation.

BUT IT was not just a change in the Russian leadership’s calculus that prevented the joint work on reset-era deliverables from transforming the relationship. In both countries, a small number of individuals—largely concentrated in a handful of executive-branch departments—were responsible for producing those deliverables. Their numbers were dwarfed by those on both sides not involved in the reset and who therefore did not become stakeholders in its success or develop trust in the opposite side. In the United States, these nonstakeholders include members of Congress who pushed to link the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 to the legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status in the lame-duck session of the last Congress. The United States was forced to grant PNTR status to Russia following its WTO membership to avoid violating WTO rules and thus harming U.S. businesses. Magnitsky was a young lawyer who died in pretrial detention in a Moscow prison in November 2009 after uncovering what was purported to be a massive fraud perpetrated by police and tax officials. His tragic death has already had serious implications for the development of the rule of law in Russia. The members of Congress who pursued this linkage had good reason to be concerned. But the Magnitsky legislation, which sanctions Russian officials involved in his death and other human-rights abuses, has not had the desired impact on either the Magnitsky case or the rule of law in Russia.

Those legislators who pushed for this outcome were unmoved by arguments that the bilateral relationship would suffer as a result of their actions. The administration’s comment on the proposed law, according to a copy obtained by Foreign Policy , cautioned:

Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes.

Yet despite this clear warning, the inclusion of this act in the PNTR bill received nearly unanimous support in both chambers. The lesson is clear: foreign-policy makers of the two governments do not operate in a vacuum. In both countries, actors and groups with little at stake in the U.S.-Russian relationship are capable of doing it serious harm.

But policy makers on both sides are not without tools for addressing this situation. They can create opportunities for interaction between key groups such as legislators. They also can develop wider sets of constituencies in the relationship by facilitating increased bilateral investment and trade. Greater economic ties have the potential to create powerful private-sector stakeholders for the relationship.

The issue of sequencing may represent the most important policy lesson from the failure to convert reset deliverables into a transformed relationship. The Obama administration, believing cooperation would create the right conditions to address long-standing disagreements, assumed those disagreements could be contained until the time was right. Now it is clear that this assumption was false. Breaking the man-made ups and downs in U.S.-Russian relations will require engaging simultaneously with the underlying problems along with work on the deliverables. Otherwise, once the pace of deliverables slows, the fundamental problems will wreak havoc on the relationship. Think of U.S.-Russian relations as rather like a car driving up a steep incline with busted brakes. As soon as it runs out of gasoline (the deliverables), the car will go crashing down that incline. It isn’t enough merely to fill the car with gas. The basic problem of the brakes must be addressed.

But addressing the underlying problems in the U.S.-Russian relationship will be much more difficult than installing new brakes on a car. There are no obvious off-the-shelf solutions to the three major problems discussed above: adversarial impulses in the security establishments of both countries; disputes about Russia’s domestic politics; and conflict in post-Soviet Eurasia. And, given many other pressing priorities, such a reconciliation process is unlikely to be undertaken by senior policy makers anytime soon. But both Moscow and Washington could take immediate steps to mitigate these problems or set in motion processes that might actually resolve them in the future.

While completely eliminating adversarial sentiment in the security establishments is not a short-term project, Russian and U.S. political leaders can initiate steps toward that long-term goal. For example, both sides, and particularly the Russians, could signal publicly and privately that the excesses of “special services,” such as the harassment of Ambassador McFaul in Moscow, are unacceptable. In addition, senior decision makers, particularly defense-policy makers, could begin to sit down together and think seriously about a new framework for the nuclear relationship that will provide for their respective countries’ security needs without sticking to the outdated MAD logic. Indeed, the talks’ explicit goal should be to develop a road map aimed at overcoming the MAD logic. The steps need not come as a negotiated treaty, but rather as unilateral, coordinated moves toward a shared goal.

Disputes over Russian domestic politics could be mitigated or even eliminated, of course, were Russia’s political system to become more open and free. But even under the current conditions, policy makers on both sides could manage this problem much better than they have in recent years. U.S. policy makers could move beyond the pervasive Washington myth that engagement with the Russian government implies an endorsement of the Kremlin’s limits on domestic freedom and empowers a regime irreconcilably hostile to such freedom. While far from fully democratic, Russia is not a one-party dictatorship, and political contestation is a fact of life. The choice is not between capitulation and all-out confrontation. The policy imperative is to foster Russian domestic trends leading toward a more open political system while subtly counteracting those that might take it in the other direction. Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of “whataboutism”—responding to U.S. statements on human rights in Russia with laundry lists of purported American shortcomings.

Washington and Moscow can also do more to address conflictual approaches regarding post-Soviet Eurasia. Rather than seeking national advantage, the two countries should strive for mutually acceptable results. And such efforts should be geared toward the creation of “win-win-win” outcomes for the United States, Russia and the countries of post-Soviet Eurasia. To reach that goal, Moscow and Washington can change the way they do business in the region in several ways. First, they could provide significantly enhanced transparency concerning their policies and activities in the region. Second, Moscow and Washington should begin regular working-level consultations on regional issues. Third, both governments should dial down their public rhetoric about the region by several notches and instead seek ways to signal positive-sum intentions. Most important, officials should reject the notion of “irreconcilable differences” between Moscow and Washington in post-Soviet Eurasia and make this position clear to officials of the states of the region.

DESPITE THE recent downturn, bilateral ties are still a far cry from their near-hostile state in 2008, following the August conflict in Georgia. According to accounts that first appeared in Ronald Asmus’s 2010 book A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West , the U.S. National Security Council’s “principals committee”—which includes the president, vice president and other senior national-security officials—considered the use of military force to prevent Russia from continuing its assault on Georgia. Officials discussed (but ultimately rejected) the option of bombing the tunnel used by Russia to move troops into South Ossetia, as well as other “surgical strikes.” The fact that officials at the highest levels of decision making in the U.S. government even discussed military action against the world’s only other nuclear superpower is profoundly disturbing.

Such a development seems divorced from the realities of today’s U.S.-Russian relationship, which featured seventeen joint bilateral military exercises last year. And there is little likelihood of a return to the tensions of 2008 in Obama’s second term. Key international priorities of the Obama team require Russian cooperation. These include the sensitive negotiations between the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, as well as stabilization in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force approaches its 2014 departure. Also, at their June 2012 meeting during the Los Cabos, Mexico, G-20 summit, both Obama and Putin committed their governments to focusing on boosting investment and trade, an issue that represents a clear win-win.

For the Obama administration, advancing the president’s Prague agenda remains a priority, so we should expect a U.S. proposal on one or more of the three categories of nuclear weapons identified by the president in his letter to the Senate following New START ratification: deployed strategic weapons, nondeployed strategic weapons and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Press reports in recent weeks suggest the president is close to approving a key nuclear-policy-review document that would unlock the possibility for future reductions. The Russians have long made clear that a resolution to the missile-defense dispute is a sine qua non for further reductions. But even if the sides can find a solution to the missile-defense dilemma, the next bilateral arms-control deal could be significantly harder to negotiate than New START, which was by no means easy. (The two nations’ leaders reportedly had to resolve several issues themselves in direct talks.) The expiration of START I on December 5, 2009, and with it the end of mutual verification and the crucial confidence it builds, provided a powerful incentive for both sides to reach a deal. With New START’s verification regime now being implemented, the Russians have been lukewarm at best about another bilateral deal in the short term. Such a deal is not unimaginable. After all, going from the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to around 1,100, which is one of the reported options being considered in Washington, would not require a major change in doctrines. But the climate of anti-Americanism and the imminent serial production of two new strategic missiles (the military-industrial complex remains a powerful lobby in Russia) create strong disincentives for Russian officials to engage. Still, the Prague agenda is not only about reductions, and on the nonproliferation front, signs seem positive that a successor to the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat-reduction program will be agreed upon before its expiration this year.

But one should be wary of any list of shared interests in an analysis of U.S.-Russian relations. Even when both governments openly declare commonality of goals on an issue, results can be elusive. The most vivid case in point is the U.S.-Russian Strategic Framework Declaration, also known as the Sochi Declaration, signed by Presidents Putin and Bush in April 2008. That document described a long agenda of issues on which the two countries’ interests converge. It also declared in striking language that both countries had definitively recognized that bilateral disagreements were far outweighed by common interests. The first paragraph declared:

We reject the zero-sum thinking of the Cold War when “what was good for Russia was bad for America” and vice versa. Rather, we are dedicated to working together and with other nations to address the global challenges of the 21st century, moving the U.S.-Russia relationship from one of strategic competition to strategic partnership. We intend to cooperate as partners to promote security, and to jointly counter the threats to peace we face, including international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to build a lasting peace, both on a bilateral basis and in international fora, recognizing our shared responsibility to the people of our countries and the global community of nations to remain steadfast and united in pursuit of international security, and a peaceful, free world. Where we have differences, we will work to resolve them in a spirit of mutual respect.

Some critics of the Obama administration have pointed to that document to make the case that the reset was nothing new. But that argument turns the real lesson of the Sochi Declaration on its head. The fact that only four months after it was signed the United States contemplated an attack on Russian forces in Georgia demonstrates that the document amounted to mere words on paper. The Obama administration’s reset produced much more than words. But until policy makers address the underlying problems in the relationship—until brakes are installed on that car—we will continue to see downswings like the one we have today.


Samuel Charap

Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. 

Photo by Pete Souza, official White House photo shared in the public domain.