Beyond the Russian Reset

June 25, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Regions: RussiaUnited States

Beyond the Russian Reset

Mini Teaser: A period of apparent warming between Moscow and Washington has fallen apart as underlying troubles remain unaddressed.

by Author(s): Samuel Charap

Finally, the Obama team was not interested in playing “great games” or pursuing policies that were gratuitously confrontational toward Russia. Regarding the U.S. military facility at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport, which is used as a stopping-off point for U.S. soldiers and matériel on their way to Afghanistan, the administration sought Russian buy-in, rather than treating the arrangements as an exclusively bilateral issue with the Kyrgyzstanis. Previously, this had led Moscow to suspect that the United States intended to either stay there forever or to use Manas as part of an anti-Russia encirclement strategy. Michael McFaul, who became U.S. ambassador to Moscow in late 2011 after serving as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff following Obama’s inauguration, recalled in an April 2011 speech that, during Obama’s first meeting with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, Obama made clear he did not care to engage in great-power rivalry:

He said, “Help me understand, President Medvedev, why you want us to leave Manas, because what are our soldiers doing? They are flying into Afghanistan after a short amount of time in Kyrgyzstan and they are fighting people that if we weren’t fighting them you would have to be fighting them.”

The paradox of the “post-reset” period is that the main factor that allowed for all the deliverables of the reset—the Obama administration’s course correction—remained unchanged while the relationship itself deteriorated. Instead, other factors were to blame. First, the flood of deliverables slowed to a trickle. Given how many of them were achieved in the first few years of the reset, that pace could not be sustained. The agreements of that period were anything but low-hanging fruit, despite some critics’ claims. Many of the most significant ones resulted from months of hard work, and nearly all of them seemed impossible in 2008. Still, they were “lower hanging” than the issues on which the two sides are seeking agreement today, particularly missile defense and Syria.

CLEARLY, VLADIMIR Putin’s return to the presidency has had a negative impact on the relationship as well. Immediately following his inauguration in May 2012, Putin did not take deliberate steps to worsen the relationship. But he demonstrated no interest in investing in it. Indeed, he signaled in a number of ways, most noticeably with his no-show at the Camp David G-8 meeting that month, that relations with the United States were not a foreign-policy priority. Putin’s actions to slam shut the opening in Russian public life that had emerged in recent years also dragged down the relationship. It is simply more complicated for any U.S. administration to do business with Russia under these circumstances.

Although his relationship with President George W. Bush, especially after 9/11, demonstrates that he is not ideologically opposed to U.S.-Russian cooperation, Putin is clearly fed up with certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy, such as what he perceives as meddling in Russian domestic politics and a U.S. habit of toppling sitting governments that disagree with it. And he has signaled his frustration to Washington in no uncertain terms, through recent actions such as the ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children in retaliation for the Magnitsky legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress late last year. He further worsened the atmosphere in bilateral relations by imposing additional restrictions on Americans working in Russian NGOs and through his apparent sanctioning of government-affiliated mouthpieces’ and media outlets’ virulent anti-Americanism.

Putin’s actions have called into question one of the central tenets of the Obama administration’s reset: that working on multiple agreements, increasing the number of contacts and broadening the relationship (including through the Bilateral Presidential Commission) would allow the two countries to make progress on the long-standing disagreements outlined above. As McFaul stated in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in December 2010, “The trick is to be able to have a longer horizon so that every move . . . is not seen as zero-sum, but you can play a win-win over the long haul. . . . And you know, we’re just midstream in what I hope to be a long game, in terms of this particular policy.” But this hope for a long game has been dashed in recent months.

So why did the long laundry list of reset-era deliverables fail to create conditions for addressing the underlying problems in the relationship? The most important reason is also the explanation for Putin’s turn to anti-Americanism. Over the past twelve to eighteen months, the foundational pillar of the political system Putin constructed—consistently high levels of popular support for the leadership—began to crumble. Some astute analysts, particularly Mikhail Dmitriev and his colleagues at the Center for Strategic Research, saw the trend in focus groups as early as two years ago, but the problem only became visible when Putin announced that he had decided to run for the presidency again in what Russians dubbed a rokirovka or “castling move” on September 24, 2011. That decision, which marked the complete personalization of Russian politics, delegitimized both the presidency and political institutions more broadly in the eyes of Russia’s most creative and talented citizens, particularly the urban middle class. Putin lost these voters, many of whom had supported him because of the prosperity associated with his tenure. But these Russians think of themselves as Europeans, not subjects of a personalistic kleptocracy, and the rokirovka seemed to be leading to precisely that.

Instead of boosting stability, which seems to have been the intent, the rokirovka transformed the so-called Putin majority—a coalition comprised of economically dynamic, middle-class Russians along with two more conservative social groups, beneficiaries of the state (such as government employees and pensioners) and rural heartland voters—into a much more reactionary, paternalistic Putin plurality. This shift in domestic political alignments changed the calculus of the Russian leadership; it now felt compelled to employ anti-Americanism in order to mobilize this narrower support base. This antagonism toward the United States also is used to create a siege mentality in the public discourse, allowing the government to label its political opponents as traitors. This trope of the “enemy at the gates” was used extensively in 2007–2008, at another low point in U.S.-Russian relations, and it is now being used again. In short, as a result of its increasingly contested domestic political environment, the Russian leadership often sees the bilateral relationship as a tool of domestic politics rather than an end in itself or even a means of addressing Russia’s global challenges. At those moments, the reset period’s track record of cooperation does not affect the decision-making equation.

BUT IT was not just a change in the Russian leadership’s calculus that prevented the joint work on reset-era deliverables from transforming the relationship. In both countries, a small number of individuals—largely concentrated in a handful of executive-branch departments—were responsible for producing those deliverables. Their numbers were dwarfed by those on both sides not involved in the reset and who therefore did not become stakeholders in its success or develop trust in the opposite side. In the United States, these nonstakeholders include members of Congress who pushed to link the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 to the legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status in the lame-duck session of the last Congress. The United States was forced to grant PNTR status to Russia following its WTO membership to avoid violating WTO rules and thus harming U.S. businesses. Magnitsky was a young lawyer who died in pretrial detention in a Moscow prison in November 2009 after uncovering what was purported to be a massive fraud perpetrated by police and tax officials. His tragic death has already had serious implications for the development of the rule of law in Russia. The members of Congress who pursued this linkage had good reason to be concerned. But the Magnitsky legislation, which sanctions Russian officials involved in his death and other human-rights abuses, has not had the desired impact on either the Magnitsky case or the rule of law in Russia.

Those legislators who pushed for this outcome were unmoved by arguments that the bilateral relationship would suffer as a result of their actions. The administration’s comment on the proposed law, according to a copy obtained by Foreign Policy, cautioned:

Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes.

Yet despite this clear warning, the inclusion of this act in the PNTR bill received nearly unanimous support in both chambers. The lesson is clear: foreign-policy makers of the two governments do not operate in a vacuum. In both countries, actors and groups with little at stake in the U.S.-Russian relationship are capable of doing it serious harm.

But policy makers on both sides are not without tools for addressing this situation. They can create opportunities for interaction between key groups such as legislators. They also can develop wider sets of constituencies in the relationship by facilitating increased bilateral investment and trade. Greater economic ties have the potential to create powerful private-sector stakeholders for the relationship.

Image: Pullquote: Immediately following his inauguration in May 2012, Putin did not take deliberate steps to worsen the relationship. But he demonstrated no interest in investing in it.Essay Types: Essay