Five years past Obama’s inauguration his Russia policy is crumbling. Is there any chance for an overhaul?

Barack Obama working at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

 The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff. 

Poor soil for the “reset”

Five years ago Barack Obama first took office, pledging to make bold changes from his predecessor. While it was not a crucial part of his presidential campaign, which was understandably focused on the then rapidly deteriorating economy, Obama had nonetheless made a very specific promise to comprehensively re-evaluate relations with Russia. This effort quickly became known as the “reset.”

While the reset has not aged very well, it’s worth taking a second to remember just how poisonous and nasty US-Russian relations were at the beginning of 2009. The war in Georgia, a war in which Russian planes bombed a country that had a not-insignificant number of American troops serving as advisors, was fresh on everyone’s mind. The American military had airlifted Georgian troops back from Afghanistan and Iraq, and American naval vessels had paid a visit to Georgia shortly after the end of hostilities. The meaning of this was not lost on the Kremlin, which was incandescently furious at perceived American meddling in its backyard.

And the war in Georgia was merely the most extreme of the problems characterizing the US-Russia relationship in late 2008 and early 2009. The Bush administration had engaged in a worldwide campaign of democratization, openly threatening authoritarian governments with overthrow. This had (understandably) made the Russian government rather paranoid, constantly seeing signs of a “color revolution” around every corner. Current US-Russia tensions, while severe, pale in comparison.

However, while Obama came into office promising a clean break with the Russia policy of his predecessor, it would be a huge mistake to imagine that this actually happened. For all of his rhetoric about change, Obama has been an utterly conventional president when it comes to foreign policy, and everything he has done is comfortably within the main stream of the elite consensus.

It might seem a bit naïve, but the establishment view of American foreign policy is that the country’s interests and its values are one and the same. Speaking at a conference in Munich in early 2009, Vice President Joe Biden, often known as a bit of a verbal loose cannon but someone who is actually an eminently reliable conveyor of the foreign policy consensus, gave a very concise summary of this when he said the following: "There is no conflict between our security and our ideals. We believe they are mutually reinforcing."

Unfortunately, in the real world there is always going to be a conflict between interests and values. Whether the White House publicly acknowledges it or not, reality is just too complicated and variable to have two such different things be in perfect alignment.

Ever present challenges in U.S-Russia relationship

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the conflict between American interests and values more acute than in Russia. America has a number of very serious “hard” security interests in the region most, but not all, of which are holdovers from the Cold War. As a former superpower, the Russian Federation has a gigantic number of nuclear warheads and an aging, but still lethal, fleet of ballistic missiles that can take them anywhere in the world with little or no warning. The United States has a clear interest in monitoring Russian nuclear forces in accordance with a number of formal treaties and in helping do what it can to minimize the threat of an accidental or inadvertent launch. Russia also inherited enormous quantities of chemical and biological weapons from the Soviet Union, and the United States has a perfectly understandable interest in seeing these weapons placed under effective control and in helping Russia meet its treaty obligations to dispose of them.

In addition to the legacy issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the United States and Russia also have a clear interest in counter-terror cooperation. The two countries are not facing an identical roster of enemies, but there is obvious overlap between the militant Islamist groups that threaten both countries. Exactly how close this cooperation should be is an open question, but Russian and American anti-terror forces are going to share information on common threats and will occasionally be compelled to work together by a more dangerous and less predictable common enemy. Even the most vociferously anti-Russian politicians in the US, people like John McCain, understand that there are some issues on which cooperation is non-negotiable.

This even if bilateral relations deteriorate to a level of almost open hostility (as happened in the aftermath of the 2008 war in Georgia) both Russia and the United States will be compelled to work together on a number of issues that are vital to their national security. That is to say that, because of American security interests, there will be substantial engagement with the Russians even if there is a complete lack of agreement on values.

And this harsh reality is why I think that so much of the sniping about the “reset” is simply cynical political posturing from opponents of the Obama administration, people who would complain about Obama’s policy regardless of its content. Obama has not in any way “embraced” the Russians, nor has he given them favorable treatment. The accomplishments of his time in office, particularly the new START treaty, but also Russia’s accession to the WTO, were win-win diplomatic agreements. They weren’t bold, transformative gestures, but they made the world a slightly better place than it was before while costing the United States nothing. Would that more “disastrous failures” had such beneficial consequences.

Do we need another “reset“ from Obama?

Much of the criticism of the reset is obviously cynical and self-interested, there are people who offer more substantive objections. Almost all of these criticisms are, in one way or another, based on an assumption that if only the United States comes up with a policy that is an appropriate mix of carrots and sticks then Russia will follow a foreign policy that is essentially in line with our dictates.

Victor Davidoff, writing in the Moscow Times, recently presented a note-perfect encapsulation of this view. He said, “The flawed reset policy has left the US without strong cards that could be played to stop the escalation of hostility coming from Moscow. It's time for Western countries to redesign their policy toward Russia if we are to avoid seeing a remake of the Cold War.” Davidoff is far from alone in his belief that such “strong cards” exist and can be played if only the administration is willing to do so.

However, I would argue that the belief that the United States has the ability to substantially alter the contours of Russian policy is a fundamental misreading of the situation and a grievous overestimation of American influence. Russia might no longer be a superpower, but it has substantial economic, political, and military resources at its disposal, resources that make it impossible for the United States to impose its will. America simply has too many other urgent priorities in too many other parts of the world to focus all of its effort on transforming Russian foreign policy, and the best that it can hope to do is modestly alter Moscow’s calculus in a few select areas.

The alternative to the reset then isn’t a policy which magically causes Moscow’s priorities to become the same as Washington, but a policy that attempts to focus on a few select areas (though due to the security interests I mentioned earlier, the discussion will almost always end up back on nuclear weapons and WMDs).

Russian-American relations have followed a deeply cyclical nature for the past twenty years. There is an initial burst of enthusiasm, a surge of productivity, and bold proclamations that a new era of Russian-American friendship is at hand. And then, as it becomes clear that the United States and Russia see the world in very different ways, there is an almost palpable sense of disappointment as the two sides realize that their optimism was misplaced. Things continue to get worse and worse until the old administration leaves office and a new takes its place. Then the cycle is repeated again. The new administration castigates its predecessor for its narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness, and pledges to pursue a Russia policy that will get “real results.”

Future historians will look at “the reset” not as some bizarre and inexplicable change in American policy towards Russia that is worthy of in-depth study, but as something that was very much in line with the experience of other administrations. The reset had some initial success but it has crashed on the reality of fundamental US and Russian disagreement.