Pausing the U.S.-Russian Reset

March 28, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Russia

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.

It isn’t unsurprising that they believe the pause need not interfere with positive cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program, Afghanistan, Syria and nuclear non-proliferation, or with the America’s continued attempts to “promote democracy” in Russia, thus continuing to meddle in our country’s domestic affairs. And, as Leon Aron writes in his article, this effort to defend human rights and civil society actually is designed “to assist Russia’s progress toward genuine democracy.”

I think this quasi-recommendation of a pause looks more like a recipe for the escalation of tension between the two countries.

Years ago, George H. W. Bush’s strategic pause in his dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev met with extraordinary success. Gorbachev, bewildered and overwhelmed as chaos spurred by his own inconsistent actions engulfed the Soviet Union, could not understand and adequately judge the pause. The result was that he embarked on a series of mistakes in foreign policy. The American side had only to wait until the situation was ripe and the entire country collapsed on its own. At present, however, a pause is more likely to benefit the Russian side. Russian power is now more consolidated, the government is more confident, and Russia faces no serious internal or external challenges. Thus, it has the opportunity to adopt a strategic pause itself while the American side works out its global strategy and a new cooperation agenda.

During his thirteen years in power in big-league politics, Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he has all the necessary qualities of a leader: tenacity, sangfroid, character and willpower. Not only can he persevere under fire, but also he consistently can pursue Russia’s interests. There is little chance that, as a result of an American pause, Putin would become demoralized or that the Russian leadership would succumb to panic and feverishly abandon Russia’s vital interests.

However, it is unlikely that the American administration can afford a pause: It lacks both time and ability. In the media and political circles, Washington’s dysfunction has become the talk of the town, reflected rather blatantly in the inability of Congress to adopt a budget for four years straight. The U.S. economy is showing a sluggish recovery, unemployment is still high, and the continuing spending sequester only exacerbates the already caustic political tension that has gripped the political parties. External challenges compound the situation, mandating immediate reaction by the Obama administration. These include the exit from Afghanistan with its unpredictable consequences; the unclear fate of the Iraqi government stemming directly from the American occupation and its end; and the development of the Iranian nuclear program that calls for urgent and adequate action by the American president. Both long-term ally Israel and powerful political forces within the United States are waiting on President Obama to act. Such action is also warranted in response to North Korea’s aggressive nuclear-missile ambitions, which are destabilizing East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. The list of challenges commanding quick and competent action by the United States goes on.

We can draw the conclusion that, if anyone in the Russian-American partnership can afford to pause, it obviously isn’t the United States.

Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.