Pausing the U.S.-Russian Reset

Moscow gains the most if Washington ceases its outreach.

Last week at George Washington University’s Elliott School, leading experts took part in a conference titled “Russia as a Global Power: Contending Views from Russia.” Out of the many topics that were touched upon during the seminar, I would like to address the three that I considered paramount for the understanding of what goes on in the heads of politicians and experts in Washington and, to a degree, in Moscow.

The topic that attracted the most attention concerned the politics of the “Reset,” which, according to both Russian and American experts, had run its course. One of the reasons for this, largely consonant with my own view, is the fact that the “Reset” was never clearly defined and met with differing interpretations in Washington and Moscow. It could not, therefore, be the basis of Putin’s policy, all the more because it was inherited from the Medvedev administration.

On the other hand, some American pundits believe the “Reset” expired because it had achieved the maximum it could have hoped to achieve. That is, Russia and the United States reached the limit of their possible cooperation in the spheres of arms control (having signed the New START treaty), as well as on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea and a slew of other questions, thus necessitating a new agenda for Russian-American relations.

However, the second issue under discussion questioned whether the old agenda for cooperation had indeed run its course. As Paul Saunders, one of the leading experts on Russian-American relations and the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, pointed out, Russia does not make the list of top five challenges for U.S. policy at present, which is good. During the discussion, Saunders partially supported my position that Russia is not only not a problem for the United States, but also actually can help the United States solve problems.

True, this position hardly enjoyed consensus among either American or Russian participants. A number of pundits said that Russia acts as a responsible partner to the United States and if it does not fully adopt Washington’s stance on Iran, North Korea and Syria, this is not because it wishes to deliberately hamstring American policy, but because it takes into account its own understanding of the potential pitfalls of more aggressive American action abroad. Opponents of this group of experts assert that Russia’s actions speak of anti-Americanism and attempts to prevent America and the West from achieving their foreign-policy objectives in spheres of principal importance.

It became clear during the discussion that the points of view of U.S. neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, on the one hand, and Russia’s radical liberals, on the other, coincide on the topics of internal Russian processes and Russian-American relations. This alliance has a negative influence on the formation of public opinion in the United States on Russia and bilateral relations between the two countries. These groups represent the “democracy promotion complex,” in the apt phrase of Dimitri Simes, and have destructive consequences for American foreign policy, akin to those of the military-industrial complex that president Dwight Eisenhower famously warned about.

We can further note the convergence of positions on Russian-American relations that exists in both countries’ political and expert circles that profess “political realism.” Unfortunately, political realists in the United States are usually a minority among both politicians and experts. They frequently lose out in political debates central to determining American foreign policy, sidelined by their aggressive and ideologically grounded opponents from the democracy-promotion complex. This prevents successive administrations from making what I would consider adequate decisions on many consequential issues of international politics.

The third problem that provoked serious discussion was whether a new agenda for cooperation had to be worked out immediately by the Obama and Putin administrations, or whether the countries needed to enter a “strategic pause.” I had argued the strategic pause case a year ago in my March 2012 article in Izvestiya, “Does Putin Need a Reset?” right after Putin’s win in the Presidential elections. Leon Aron recently put forth similar arguments in his article in Foreign Affairs, The Putin Doctrine,” which attracted a lot of attention by the American political and expert communities. We have to note here that Aron’s thinking seemed a bit strange when he recommended that the United States enter a strategic pause with Russia so both countries could seriously ponder on which issues they can offer concessions or negotiate a compromise. When American politicians and experts talk about pausing, they seldom seem to understand it as complete respite from relations. Rather, they seek cooperation on issues that favor Washington and a pause on issues that favor Moscow. In this, there is a latent confidence that the Russian leadership lacks tenacity and thus will sacrifice its vital interests—as when, for example, Moscow didn’t check Washington’s attempts to alter the strategic balance of power by deploying a missile shield in Europe or failed to disallow the emergence of regimes hostile to Russia in the countries of the post-Soviet space.