Does the Reset Have a Future?

A chill has resurfaced in relations between Moscow and Washington. Is the "reset" a two-way street, or just a tactic to get Russia to do America's bidding?

As we enter September, a question naturally arises: what is the future of the much-famed “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations? The previous political season between the two countries ended on a low note, due to the spy scandal in the United States, which started as if by coincidence three days after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev left Washington, where he had seemingly successful talks with American President Barack Obama. This new season started with Putin’s recent remarks that so far he does not see any “reset” in relations between the two countries. And these are not the only signs that there is trouble brewing between Moscow and Washington, despite protestations to the contrary.

Of course, in the last two years things have changed for the better. And the progress hasn’t been limited to a change of style in the relationship. There have also been some substantive shifts. Much to the dismay on the part of the American political class, as well as in some Eastern European capitals, the White House decided to reconsider the Bush administration plan to establish the key elements of a future U.S. antiballistic missile (ABM) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Thus Obama removed a major stumbling block on the “reset” path. Second, American plans to accept Ukraine and Georgia into NATO have been put on the back burner. From the Russian point of view, this was a welcome break with the policies of Obama’s predecessor. Third, unlike in 2004, in 2009 the U.S. wisely stayed out of the most recent Ukrainian presidential elections, even though the leading candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, clearly had Russian sympathies. In Moscow this was perceived as a sign that the Obama administration would not put the new relationship at risk by playing against Russian interests in the post-Soviet space.

On Russia’s side, the moves to accommodate U.S. global interest were, as some suggest in Moscow, even more important. During Obama’s first visit to Moscow in July 2009, Russia gave its agreement for the United States to use Russia’s airspace in order to send military supplies—and even possibly troops—to Afghanistan. This was something Washington had sought for a long time, and something it had failed to obtain in the quasi–Cold War climate of 2007-2008. Just with a change in tone and rhetoric, Obama managed to achieve in few months an agreement George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice could not achieve in years. I was present at the official reception in Obama’s honor at the Kremlin, and I have never seen happier U.S. officials.

Second, in order to support Washington on the key issue of Iran, Russia dramatically reversed its stand, going so far as to support U.S.-backed sanctions (a stance considered to be highly improbable only few months ago). Moscow also agreed not to make waves about the spy scandal and not to retaliate in a Cold War manner for the humiliation it suffered after its so-called agents were arrested on U.S. shores.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this “reset” will go any further than a mere “détente,” detentes which have occurred periodically between the two countries over their long histories. We have seen a similar thaw of relations with Brezhnev and Nixon, Reagan and Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Clinton, and finally Putin and Bush. However, they invariably ended with new Cold War–type tensions. Will the “reset” be different?

One cannot help but notice that there are strong critical voices against Obama’s rapprochement with Moscow in the United States. In Russia, however, there is less public criticism, and the Kremlin seems to be rather enthusiastic. In July, speaking before the Russian ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry, Dmitri Medvedev praised his relationship with Obama and the White House, suggesting it should be used as a model for Russian diplomats when dealing with other countries. In his recent foreign-policy speeches, the president also played down the negative aspects of the relationship—such as U.S. support for Georgia—and stressed the role of America as a key partner in his ambitious goal to modernize Russia’s economy.

However, a fairly high degree of skepticism in Moscow certainly remains. Russians still remember the “Boris and Bill friendship” of the 1990’s. At this time Yeltsin was looking for a new relationship with the United States and went out of his way to accommodate American concerns. However, as was depicted in Strobe Talbott’s book The Russia Hand, the approach of the Clinton administration to Russia was to wriggle all possible concessions from Moscow without giving Yeltsin anything in return. If we are to believe this book, in order to obtain these concessions then-President Clinton used not only his charm and U.S. diplomacy, but also the power of alcohol, to which the ailing Russian president was highly receptive. While Mr. Talbott congratulates the administration at such a skillful use of Yeltsin’s weaknesses, the result for the overall relationship was devastating. By the year 2000, in Russia the very concept of partnership with the United States was considered a deeply flawed, one-way street which went only in one direction—toward the satisfaction of U.S. foreign-policy interests.

Later, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Putin’s attempt to create a new partnership based on a joint war against terrorism also fell flat. The Bush administration took Russia’s support in Afghanistan and Central Asia for granted, with no plans to reciprocate. Instead, it walked out of the ABM treaty, demanding that Moscow conduct talks with the Chechen separatists and support any anti-Russian trends which manifested themselves in the post-Soviet space—from the Baltic Republics to Ukraine.

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