Don't Give Up on the U.S.-Russian Reset

Russia's people don't share the Kremlin's anger.

Hope that the U.S.-Russia “reset” would survive Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency has crumbled in the last few months, as Moscow pulled out of several cooperative agreements underpinning the U.S.-Russia partnership.

All is not lost, however. Moscow and Washington still agree on a global agenda they can tackle in concert. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described his first meeting with new U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in Berlin on February 26, discussing Syria and Russian orphans, as “constructive.” Following talks on nonproliferation cooperation last week, Rose Gottemoeller, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov were similarly upbeat.

More significantly, while the Putin administration may have allowed itself a new bout of anti-Americanism over the last year, the Russian people have not fallen in line. When it comes to Russian public opinion, the “reset” is alive and well. The United States should seize the opportunity to react to increased Russian receptivity to Western engagement.

To be sure, the path forward remains murky. Moscow has withdrawn its invitation to the U.S. Agency for International Development to support development work in Russia; did not renew the 20-year-old Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, by which the United States helps Russia safeguard and eliminate weapons of mass destruction; terminated a ten-year old agreement on law-enforcement and drug-control cooperation; and banned U.S. citizens or organizations from financing Russian nongovernmental organizations engaged in “political” or vaguely “threatening” activity. And, yes, Moscow also banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

The Kremlin argues that it is responding to the United States’ own retreat from the reset. Late last year, a bipartisan congressional consensus led the Obama administration to introduce sanctions – visa bans and asset freezes – against a potentially open-ended list of Russian officials whom Washington believes have been guilty of violating the rights of human-rights defenders and anti-government whistleblowers.

But Washington is not the primary target of the Kremlin’s recent bout of anti-Americanism. What might look like the start of a new U.S.-Russian spat reflects the dynamics of an internal Russian political struggle. After unprecedented mass protests against election fraud in December 2011, then prime minister Vladimir Putin decided that to regain the upper hand at home required a different sort of reset with the United States. Playing on elements of anti-Americanism within Russian society, Putin reverted to the kind of rhetoric he employed in his last (pre-2008) presidential term, portraying the United States as an unfriendly power seeking to harm Russia.

Further, he sought to taint the reputation of opposition forces by positing links to Washington, casting them as a treasonous and illegitimate fifth column. The Russian parliament adopted laws aimed at ostracizing the opposition and foreign-funded NGOs, including a law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” In recent weeks, the Ministry of Justice and other state agencies have ramped up inspections of the relevant NGOs, like Memorial and Amnesty International.

Despite these efforts to drive a wedge between domestic critics and the broader Russian public, the popular response to Putin’s “reset” has not been what the Kremlin anticipated. A December 2012 poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center reported that many more Russians supported Washington’s new “anti-Russian” sanctions (39 percent) than not (14 percent), while nearly half of respondents said it was difficult to say. The adoption ban met with considerable domestic opposition (31 percent nationwide, 50 percent in Moscow), including signs of sympathy toward American families seeking to take in Russian orphans. Based on the latest major anti-government rally in January, a large part of the Russian opposition seems to have shrugged off “pro-American” accusations as harmless. Perhaps with good reason: Another Levada poll in January reported a 53 percent approval rating for the United States (with only 34 percent expressing disapproval).

The United States—its government, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and businesses—should respond to this trend. They do not need to abide by the Kremlin’s wishes and disengage from Russia at this tempestuous time. New laws seek to stigmatize or restrict U.S. partnerships with Russia’s nongovernmental sector, but they do not forbid them. Many individuals and organizations working to promote human rights and good governance in Russia still need support. Considerable opportunities remain for closer people-to-people relations, scientific and educational collaborations (like that between MIT and the new Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology), and tourism. Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization last year has the potential to facilitate increased investment and trade.

Foreign organizations should not interfere in Russian politics, for that is for the Russians to work out. But in the struggle for Russian hearts and minds, the West still has much to offer. Only by cultivating relations—and shared values—across a range of stakeholders can the U.S.-Russia relationship have a shot at becoming an abiding partnership.

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