Home inFocus Assessing the Russian Reset Policy

Assessing the Russian Reset Policy

Stephen Blank Winter 2010

In one of his earliest foreign policy initiatives upon entering office, President Barack Obama sought to “reset” the United States’ relations with Russia to reverse what he called a “dangerous drift” in the bilateral relationship, which reached an all-time low after Russia invaded Georgia—a longtime U.S. ally—in the summer of 2008.

In the two years since embarking on the reset policy, both governments have repeatedly expressed their pleasure with the present course of relations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev termed last year’s nuclear arms treaty between the countries a win-win situation and agreed that it leads to a new level of bilateral cooperation based on mutual respect and predictability. And as Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said last June, “The Obama administration’s new approach to Russia has produced considerable results that have advanced U.S. interests on a host of vital issues.”

But if one goes beyond both sides’ self-serving statements it soon becomes clear that this rapprochement rests upon a shallow foundation and remains quite insubstantial, even fragile, in content. In fact, that is the official Russian view: Last April, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov, although noting that Moscow-Washington ties have improved, said the relationship lacks real “content.”

Specifically, substantial divergences between Washington and Moscow exist in three key areas: proliferation, Eurasian regional security, and issues of democracy or the so-called values gap. Unless closed, these divergences will hinder a real reset of U.S.-Russia relations and stall the fledgling bilateral ties.

Pushing the Reset Button

From the administration’s viewpoint, resetting U.S. relations with Russia brought many gains for U.S. policy. Both countries have ratified the New START treaty and the bilateral treaty on commercial applications of nuclear energy has entered into force. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to Afghanistan has become a major logistical support for the NATO forces there. Russia has also supported UN sanctions against Iran and annulled the contract to sell Iran the lethal S-300 air defense missile—a particularly noteworthy event given that a key component of the reset policy is that improved ties with Russia can elicit Russian support on nuclear proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea. Since the administration regards proliferation as the greatest threat facing the U.S., and Russia as not only a key nuclear player but also a government that allegedly possesses influence upon Iran and North Korea, the logic of this approach is quite clear. Likewise, European diplomats report that the atmosphere of bilateral relations with Russia has markedly improved, seen in Russia’s rapprochement with Poland and the September 2010 treaty delimiting the Arctic with Norway.

Russia, too, has benefited from the reset policy. Apart from the nuclear treaties, the Obama administration has agreed to accelerate negotiations on Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), shelved NATO enlargement, modified the previous U.S. position on missile defenses, jointly authored with Russia a call for a nuclear free Middle East, and is letting Russia play a larger role in the Quartet that is to facilitate the Arab-Israeli peace process. Discussions are also underway to stimulate a major enhancement of bilateral economic and trade relations.

Arguably, Russia’s recent move towards the U.S. is part of a larger shift in Russian foreign policy. Russky Newsweek published a purportedly leaked Foreign Ministry document, allegedly prepared in February 2010 and sent to President Medvedev for approval, that advocates reorienting Russian foreign policy based on the emphasis of common economic and cultural interests with the United States and the West. It advocates a new policy towards the West to seek “modernization partnerships” and urges strengthened ties of interdependence with Western powers on the “basis of mutual penetration of economies and cultures.”

A West-looking foreign policy was seemingly put into action when Deputy Premier Valery Zubkov called for large-scale Russian-Canadian cooperation and Canadian investment in Russian technology, and when Deputy Premier Sergei Ivanov traveled to America to discuss joint arms production of military transports. Similar trends are visible in regard to Russian investments in and with France and Germany including the French sale of the Mistral helicopter carrier to Russia.

There, however, is where the good relations end.

Facing Nuclear Proliferation

While Washington and Moscow agreed on the New START treaty, when it comes to the nuclear proliferation of countries other than themselves, they are on two separate pages. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated, the two states’ assessment of proliferation threats differ.

In 2002, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reminded the world that Russia is guided by its national interests—notably, preserving its great power status—when it comes to proliferation issues. Meaning, Russia does not evaluate countries according to whether or not the regime is democratic—as in America—but on the basis of whether a country’s nuclearization would seriously threaten Russia and its interests.

Although the United States and Russia are both opposed to North Korea becoming a nuclear power and Moscow considers North Korean proliferation to be the most dangerous proliferation threat, North Korean instability and the prospect of U.S. gains in Northeast Asia consistently appear to be more threatening for Moscow. Tellingly, its cooperation with Washington on Korea has been limited; it has no leverage on North Korea and little influence in the six-party talks. Indeed, the U.S. national security strategy that sees Russia as a major Eurasian partner wholly omits mentioning Russia’s East Asian presence. Thus, for Washington, the key players here are China, South Korea, and Japan—not Moscow. Consequently, effective partnership is limited.

Moreover, Russia still sees Iran as a potential partner; Moscow’s distancing from Tehran was only a tactic used to gain leverage against the U.S. and cement important goals, such as the cessation of NATO enlargement and revamped missile defense programs. Indeed, after approving UN sanctions and stopping the S-300 missile sale, Russia jointly announced with Iran a 30-year road map for bilateral cooperation in oil and gas. The large deals mapped out as part of that partnership include cooperation on the transportation, swaps, and marketing of natural gas; sales of petroleum products and petrochemicals; and Russia’s establishment of a $100 million liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant to supply remote regions of Iran. Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko insisted that Russia would not accept sanctions other than those of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), that those sanctions did not apply to this new deal, and that existing sanctions would not stop Russia from drawing up energy cooperation plans with Iran. Indeed, he saw no limits to bilateral energy cooperation.

Finally, much to the United States’ detriment, Moscow still formally opposes “paralyzing sanctions” against Iran, which are the only kind of sanctions that may prove useful. Instead, Medvedev speaks of “smart sanctions” and clarified to Washington the limits of what Russia will support to meet the twin objectives of inducing Iran to stop enrichment and weaponization, and second, to advance Russian interests. Foreign policy commentator Fedor Lukyanov similarly observes that Moscow has gone to the limit of what it will approve in sanctions. So while it will oppose Iranian nuclearization and possibly be a traveling companion for Washington, it will hardly be a full partner against Iran.

Regional Security in Eurasia

Regional security issues in Eurasia are the most contentious issues in the bilateral relationship, but Washington has apparently tacitly accepted much of Russia’s demands. In fact, U.S. actions telegraph to Moscow that it need not make any concessions, since the U.S. will ultimately yield regarding NATO enlargement, missile defenses and, perhaps most importantly, the response to Moscow’s long-standing demand for an unfettered sphere of influence over the former Soviet Union.

To explain, the aforementioned leaked foreign policy document advocating reorienting Russian foreign policy toward the West also placed an equal, if not greater, emphasis on new investments in the Baltic and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members in order to strengthen Russian economic-political leverage over them. Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s office in Moscow attributes this policy precisely to Washington’s “mute” response to the Russo-Ukrainian gas and fleet deal of April 21, 2010. He charges that the weak response to the Medvedev-Yanukovych deal encouraged Moscow to believe it can have its cake and eat it too—i.e. détente with Washington and a free hand in the CIS.

Ryabov is not alone. Other Russian writers claim that Moscow has a virtual carte blanche in Eurasia. Sergei Rogov, Director of the U.S. and Canada Institute, sees the new U.S. national security strategy as reflecting American over-commitment under the Bush administration and hence a retrenchment as Washington is not seeking to achieve supremacy over Moscow. Rogov’s deputy asserted that President Obama “does not want U.S. involvement in any questions to arouse the enmity of countries like China or Russia,” to ensure their cooperation with Washington on international problems, such as Iran. Vyacheslav Nikonov, Chairman of the Politika Foundation, sees the U.S. as “squeezing its foreign policy commitments and the spheres of its foreign policy interests, which is favorable for peace and for Russia.”

Indeed, it is virtually impossible to discern a coherent Obama administration policy in areas like the Caucasus. Administration spokesmen constantly reiterate that it seeks “win-win” solutions with Moscow in Central Asia despite overwhelming evidence that Moscow still seeks to extrude U.S. influence and presence from that region. Likewise, there is little sign of a coherent policy towards Ukraine, and America’s Belarus policy now lies in ruins given President Lukashenka’s crackdown on opposition and visible return to the Russian fold. The U.S. has also done little to strengthen East European governments against the threat of energy-funded political subversion by Russia and its agents, even though it has commendably strengthened planning to defend the Baltic States.

The Values Gap

These points lead to the Obama administration’s strange silence about human rights violations in Russia and Ukraine—violations that have increased with this “détente.” Indeed, Moscow has intimidated critics with expressions of its anger about being lectured to, and the administration has kept quiet out of fear of jeopardizing its reset policy’s gains. Nonetheless, the legal instruments in international courts, the Helsinki Accords, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have long been available. Not surprisingly, Moscow vigorously seeks to undermine these institutions.

These are not just moral points of outrage. The “Putinization” of regimes from Belarus to Central Asia sets the stage not just for violations of basic human rights but also for the creeping neo-imperialism of Russia and the continuing failure of these regimes to stabilize their domestic conditions other than by repression. U.S. silence merely convinces these rulers that its protestations about liberty are half-hearted or hypocritical, undermining its standing throughout the area. The intensifying course of repression or attacks on human rights and democracy in Ukraine and Belarus are clearly supported by, and linked to, Russian influence on these regimes. Since Russia is on record as regarding none of the post-Soviet states as being truly sovereign, these submissions to Russia only further confirm Moscow in its assessment and undermine the foundations of the post Cold War settlement, namely these states’ effective independence. A partnership with Russia that looks away from these issues cannot command long-term support here or contribute to any country’s greater security in Eurasia.

History, Repeating

The United States’ Russian reset policy may only be intended as a limited mechanism to deal with the issues of proliferation, terrorism, and to advance President Obama’s view of a nuclear free world. But it cannot succeed unless the U.S. addresses the fact that it is dealing with a state that refuses to accept the Eurasian status quo and pretends that it can govern itself in a neo-Tsarist way (that increasingly resembles the Mafia) with impunity and no cost even as it tramples on Eurasian security.

It is often said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. The current silence on regional security and human rights evokes memories of Nixon’s détente policy—a policy that failed because it stimulated Soviet efforts to make unilateral advances against the U.S. and because its silence on democracy and values undermined the domestic consensus that it needed to survive, as then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later came to understand. The Obama policy, too, lacks robust domestic support and is already subject to the same kinds of misperceptions that undermined Nixon’s détente. Can it be that the United States has learned nothing from that episode?

Dr. Stephen Blank is the Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is an expert on the Soviet-bloc and Eastern European affairs in the post-Soviet world. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.