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.
In the New START treaty, signed on April 8, both teams apparently agreed to “fudge.” The Russians kept in the preamble of the treaty a statement about the linkages between offensive and defensive weaponry, and issued a statement indicating that they think this affects the whole question of deploying missile defenses. The Obama administration noted that the preamble is not legally binding language but extended assurances that there would be no development of any substantial system that could in theory impact the Russian nuclear deterrent. The Russians acquiesced to not pushing on missile-defense issues—which had been the main holdup in talks prior to the expiration of the original START; the U.S. side decided not to make a big issue out of the preamble.
In Russia, Medvedev has apparently achieved “buy in” from the key players on the Iran portfolio, that Moscow would move ahead with a stricter set of sanctions on Tehran. Russia voted for a new series of UN sanctions and also unilaterally rescinded the sale of the advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran, even though that transaction was “grandfathered in” by the UN sanctions.
Traditionally, there were powerful economic interests which blunted Moscow’s willingness to cooperate with Washington on Iran, particularly the defense and energy industries. But now we have a new alignment of the stars in the Russian constellation on Iran. Accommodating the United States on Iran may prove to be far more profitable in the long term than continuing to stymie Washington for the sake of existing Iranian contracts. As I noted in July,
The modernizers—those who argue that Russia needs the active support (and investment) of the West in order to develop its economy and society—have pushed for the Kremlin to accommodate U.S. concerns about Iran. In order to facilitate a “modernization alliance” with the United States, particularly in the sphere of high technology.
Moscow’s more accommodating stance on Iran has also assisted its relations with Europe, particularly with Sarkozy—further reinforcing the arguments for backing the U.S.-European stance against Tehran.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, more skeptical than his colleague in the Russian duumvirate about the prospects for a closer U.S.-Russia relationship, appears willing to let Medvedev’s “reset experiment” with the Obama administration play itself out, while withholding a final judgment.
This wait-and-see approach, however, might contain the seeds for an eventual disintegration of the reset. And is Putin’s attitude being matched by some even within the Obama administration? Robert Kagan’s observation made earlier this month that “Obama officials sense the ‘reset’ with Russia reached its high point with the START treaty and the last round of Iran sanctions and is headed downhill” is not encouraging.
The accomplishments of the last six months—the signing of new START, successful summitry in Washington and a new consensus on Iran among them—are not set in stone. The new arms-control agreement has not yet been ratified in the Senate—and the Russian side will not submit the treaty to the Duma until this occurs. A shift in the political balance of power in Ukraine could easily put Kiev back in contention. The reset has bloomed—but whether these buds could survive a new, sudden frost remains to be seen.