Obama’s Russia Policy: A Post Mortem and Lessons for the Next President

October 26, 2016
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

One of the first things that the new Barack Obama administration initiated after taking office in January 2009 was a systemic, comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Russia. Given the sustained criticism that President Obama has received from both of this year’s major presidential candidates for how he conducted U.S. relations with Moscow, a major policy review is all but certain after Inauguration Day—and, if press reports are accurate, is already unofficially occurring within the Hillary Clinton campaign. To aid and influence this process, a number of different institutions that comprise the U.S. foreign policy community are issuing analysis and assessments—including the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College in our recently released Russia Futures report.

One of the realities of American politics is that candidates complain and criticize but once in office new presidents often reconfirm the policies of their predecessors. In evaluating the eight years of the Obama administration’s Russia policies—both the 2009 “reset” with the Kremlin that defined the first term and the shift to growing confrontation that characterized the second—what might a 2017 policy review conclude? In particular, will such a process accurately dissect what worked (and what did not) with the reset attempt, now generally derided as failed and naïve, and will it revisit the assumptions about Russia’s probable medium-term trajectory that have guided U.S. policy responses on Russia for the past three years?

Why the Reset Happened

Any post mortem on the reset must deal with the challenge of separating the present-day caricatures of that policy gamble with the actual assumptions that served as the basis for its conception. The reset grew out of the correct assessment that U.S.-Russia relations had, by 2008, become trapped in a dead end around the issues of missile defense and NATO enlargement as well as the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and the August 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia. The gamble was to try to create some breathing room using a strategic pause where contentious issues could be isolated in order to develop more promising areas of cooperation. The Russia-Georgia conflict was allowed to remain frozen in order to clear the way for Russian entry into the World Trade Organization and to permit the conclusion of a U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear agreement. Technical problems with a proposed missile defense system created the grounds for canceling U.S. deployments of components in Central-Eastern Europe; in return, Moscow dropped its objections to imposing stronger sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambitions. Moreover, recognizing the lack of ballast in the Washington-Moscow relationship, both sides looked to bolster economic ties so that stronger commercial relationships could provide some shock absorption when political disagreements arose—an approach that led to U.S. investment in the Skolkovo tech-hub project and what was seen as the signature item on the economic agenda of the reset: a partnership between Exxon-Mobil and Russian state-controlled oil major Rosneft to develop the hydrocarbon reserves of the Russian Arctic.

But the reset depended on a number of particular factors. First and foremost, it could only succeed as long as the contentious question of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation remained quiescent. U.S. legislation—sponsored and supported by then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007—made it U.S. policy to keep a door open for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, but Washington was not going to force the NATO path if Ukraine itself was not interested. The election of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 saw the government in Kiev itself take NATO membership off the agenda in favor of neutrality and of agreeing to a long-term Russian naval presence in Crimea. Second, the reset with the United States—as well as with key European partners—was aided by the presence of Dmitry Medvedev in the presidential chair. Even if everyone knew that Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, was still quite influential, Medvedev’s presidency gave the West a younger, “reform-minded” interlocutor with whom to do business.

Why the Reset Fizzled

Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012 and the protest movement it engendered in Russia damaged the optics of the reset, which had focused on the productive partnership between Obama and Medvedev. The Russian establishment’s suspicion of American motives was also heightened by two other developments. First, the refashioning, rather than cancellation, of the U.S. missile defense program for the European theater reignited suspicion that missile defense was ultimately directed against Russia (even as talks with Iran on curbing its nuclear program seemed to be making progress). Second, Moscow complained about what was seen as a bait and switch on Libya: Russia’s willingness to abstain on a UN resolution calling for a no-fly zone over the country after the anti-Gadhafi rebellion began in 2011 was based on its understanding that the U.S. and Western powers would create safe areas for civilian refugees, not become co-belligerents alongside the rebels to overthrow Gadhafi. Subsequently, Moscow used its veto power at the United Nations to prevent any repetition of the Libya scenario in Syria, where Russia had concrete interests tied with the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime—interpreted by Washington as intransigence to support a brutal dictator—and then the Kremlin gave asylum to Edward Snowden, a gesture that led Obama to cancel a summit with Putin. But the main nail in the coffin of the reset proved to be Ukraine. Once the Maidan protest movement empowered a pro-Western government in Kiev, the reset could not survive the resumption of geopolitical competition over Ukraine.

Challenges for the Next Administration

If a new U.S. administration wants to try yet another reboot in relations with Russia, therefore, it can only occur within the context of compromises on Syria and Ukraine that allow the U.S. and Russia to back away from their current, seemingly inflexible stances, just as a series of de facto compromises in 2009 (on Georgia, NATO enlargement and missile defense) provided the space for the reset. However, that begs two questions: whether there would be the political will to do so and whether a new administration would believe it necessary to do so—for instance, to secure Russian cooperation on other more pressing issues. Unlike in 2009, some major U.S. goals—most notably, getting an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear program—have already been achieved. Moreover, any new reboot will require immediately tackling more contentious issues (like NATO enlargement) that the first reset prudently deferred, without any readily apparent “easy pickings” on the agenda in 2017 that could pay immediate political dividends. There is also no Medvedev veneer of liberalism maintaining the appearance that Russia is moving on a Western path of development or seeks to become part of the Euro-Atlantic world. In terms of domestic political values and geopolitics, Putin has embarked on a distinct Eurasian course that no longer sees Russia’s end state as assuming its proper place in the Western order.

This touches on another part of any future policy review: the assumptions guiding U.S. policy in Obama’s second term. When U.S.-Russia relations began to deteriorate, the Obama administration was unwilling to offer Moscow any major compromises (say, a formal agreement on Ukrainian neutrality) but was also not prepared to take on the burdens that might result from a vigorous effort to contain Russia. The administration was disinclined to take major steps vis-à-vis Moscow on the grounds that the long-term prognosis for Russia, particularly its economy, was poor and thus the U.S. did not need to take any expensive, risky measures involving confrontation. The Kremlin, in this view, would not be able to sustain its worrisome activities due to the economic and political strains that would emerge. Thus, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, President Obama focused on imposing a set of stringent sanctions that, alongside a precipitous drop in energy prices, was expected to compel the Russian government to change its policies or starve it of the resources needed to sustain its position in Ukraine and Syria without requiring the United States to have to do much. In January 2015, during the State of the Union, Obama declared that Russia was isolated and its economy “in tatters”—with the implication that the Putin government could not continue its policies. Since then, despite a modest reinforcement of the American strategic military position in Europe, the U.S. is still largely relying on economic pressures to compel the Russian government to change its behavior.

Yet nearly two years later, the Putin government has not collapsed, Russia has not disgorged Crimea and Moscow has increased the tempo of its intervention in Syria. Even if the long-term prognosis for Russia still appears grim, a new administration will thus have to decide whether during its first term in office Russia is likely to significantly weaken or not. If not, then the new team will have to decide whether U.S. interests are best served by the application of more direct pressure against Moscow—with all of the risks that entails (such as the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria that could bring American and Russian military assets into direct conflict with each other)—or whether compromise is the better approach.

Compromise vs. Firmness

Traditionally, the United States has had difficulty in transcending the binary designation of another nation as “friend” or “foe.” In moving forward, however, Washington has to become more comfortable with compartmentalizing the relationship with Russia if it does not want to see areas of beneficial cooperation adversely affected by the inevitable disagreements. This requires an understanding of what areas of U.S.-Russia relations are essential to U.S. interests, and where such cooperation can be jettisoned because of Russian actions in other theaters.

Whatever administration takes office this coming January, it will have to wrestle with difficult questions of where to seek compromises with Russia and where to stand firm. Proposals like “new détente” or “new containment” both carry significant costs and risks—neither is a silver bullet that will solve the recent problems in U.S.-Russia relations quickly and easily. The review process can only be successful if the new team is willing to make these calls based on its assessment of U.S. values and interests, a sober assessment of Russian strengths and weaknesses and an understanding of where Moscow may be induced to show flexibility and where it will stand firm. This requires, in the end, an understanding both of the costs America is willing to pay and the limits of what can be demanded of Russia.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.