The Reset Blooms

The Obama administration's "reset" with Russia has produced results. But can it last?

Over the past year, I was skeptical of the Obama administration’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia. In January of this year, I wrote, “The problem is simple: not only are many Russian and American interests today out of alignment, the political realities in both countries work against any effective partnership being developed.” My pessimistic attitude was based on an assessment of the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations over the last decade, “‘Resetting’ Relations between the U.S. and Russia,” coauthored with Dana Struckman, in which we concluded that the “ongoing ‘baggage’ in the relationship” would preclude “any sudden, rapid transformation” in ties between Washington and Moscow.

In October 2010, however, the picture seems different. Both Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have built upon the initial foundation they laid during their 2009 summit meeting in Moscow and made conscious choices to downplay or put on the back burner some of the seemingly irreconcilable issues that had poisoned the well of U.S.-Russia relations during the closing terms of the George W. Bush and Vladimir V. Putin administrations. Both presidents have chosen to clarify what Struckman and I described as a “number of confusing signals” that dogged efforts on the part of both Moscow and Washington to reset relations during the latter half of 2009.

One must not also overlook changes in the international environment, beyond the control of either the Medvedev or Obama teams, to this improved climate. First and foremost have been developments in Ukraine. The election of Viktor Yanukovich to the presidency, and even more importantly, Yanukovich’s ability to create a parliamentary majority in the Rada and to set up a stable cabinet under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, meant that Yanukovich has been able to steer Ukraine away from its all-out embrace of the Euro-Atlantic world in favor of a more accommodating approach to Russia. The decisions to forgo Ukraine’s attempts to gain NATO membership and to sign a new, long-term lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet have removed Ukraine from the chessboard of U.S.-Russia competition—and in turn decreased Russia’s need to cause problems for the United States in other parts of the world.

The second has been the ongoing efforts of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to continue with their efforts to include Russia in European matters and to tighten the bonds of economic integration between Western Europe and Russia. The recently concluded “three-way” summit between Medvedev, Merkel and Sarkozy in the French seaside resort of Deauville saw Sarkozy’s proposal for a "technical, human and security partnership” between Europe and Russia, a proposal for a European security council and a common economic space in place by 2025. And the perceptible warming in relations between Moscow and Warsaw, in the wake of the tragic plane crash that claimed the life of Poland’s president, offers hope that Russia’s traditionally frosty relations with east-central Europe might be undergoing a thaw.

But just as importantly, both the Obama and the Medvedev administrations made choices in 2010 that went against some key domestic constituencies in both countries. The Obama team made a deliberate choice to de-escalate a confrontational stance toward Moscow over the unresolved conflict with Georgia. While the United States has not recognized the unilateral declarations of independence made by Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war, and continues to consider these two regions as parts of Georgia “occupied” by Russian forces, the Obama administration, notwithstanding considerable pressure from some elements in Congress, has eschewed the sale of advanced weapons systems to Georgia. The Obama team is also attempting to convince a sometimes-skeptical government in Tbilisi that the likelihood that Washington can “strong-arm” Russia into reversing the 2008 developments is next to nil—but that, in an atmosphere of improved U.S.-Russia relations, it might be possible to begin constructive efforts to solve the conflict.

In keeping with that strategy, the Obama team also de-linked the Georgia conflict from the 123 civil-nuclear agreement that the Bush administration unsuccessfully sought with Russia. Back in 2008, then-Senator Joe Biden declared the agreement all-but-dead on arrival as a result of the tensions in ties between Moscow and Washington. This year, the Obama administration resubmitted the agreement, and while noting ongoing disagreements with Russia over Georgia and other issues, stressed the commercial and security benefits to U.S. interests.