When President Barack Obama makes a truncated visit to Russia for the G-20 meeting in early September, the contrast with his previous visit in July 2009 will be hard to miss. Last time around, Obama delivered a commencement address at Moscow’s New Economic School, a prestigious private graduate school and the alma mater of several top Russian officials. His remarks highlighted a “reset” policy toward Russia that was still in its infancy. Obama even put in an appearance at a U.S.-Russia civil-society summit in front of hundreds of activists and NGO representatives at a posh hotel near the Kremlin.
Today, U.S.-Russian relations are in deep crisis due to the Kremlin’s welcome mat for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and a lengthening list of disagreements. Sergei Guriev, the New Economic School’s former rector and one of Russia’s most prominent public intellectuals, has decamped to Paris over fears that he might be jailed amid roving criminal investigations into ties to jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and upstart politician and blogger Alexei Navalny (whose own politically motivated prosecution has become a global cause célèbre). Meanwhile, the guest list at the 2009 civil society summit reads like a who’s who of the groups that are today bearing the brunt of the Kremlin’s recent crackdown.
On major issues of the day like Syria, U.S.-Russian differences are hard to paper over or wish away. Prospects appear to be fading for an agreement on deeper strategic arms reductions—the President’s reason for wanting to travel to Russia in the first place—before Obama leaves office. Putin and other Russian officials were summarily dismissive of Obama’s June speech in Berlin, which called for further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. They were equally tepid about the recent cancellation of planned U.S. missile-defense deployments in Europe.
Frustration with the relationship in U.S. political circles is mounting. A growing number of politicians from both parties as well as editorial page editors and experts are coming to a similar conclusion: It is well past time to get tough with Putin.
So what went wrong? To some well-placed observers, the answer is simple. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012 killed off a remarkably productive phase in relations. Putin’s anti-American posturing and anger over alleged U.S. political interference in Russia’s domestic affairs—including Congress’s passage last year of legislation to punish Russian officials responsible for a young lawyer’s death in a Moscow prison—will make it almost impossible for Obama to turn things around. Others point to the Russian leadership’s resentment of U.S. unilateralism and ingrained habit of ignoring Moscow’s views. Complicating matters further is a deep-seated Russian conviction that American power is in irreversible decline in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.
Both assessments deserve to be taken seriously, but they raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what does it say about the relative importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship to the Russian leadership that Putin was willing to torpedo it almost on a whim? Does Putin truly believe that U.S. foreign policy is based primarily on promoting regime change for governments it doesn’t like, including his own? Likewise, has the U.S. foreign policy establishment fully absorbed the implications of Russia’s eagerness to demonstrate its independence on the world stage, often in direct competition with Washington? It is precisely these types of issues that will determine the durability of the Obama Administration’s Russia policy during the remainder of the President’s second term.
Before addressing these questions, some humility is in order. Any diagnosis of what ails the U.S.-Russian relationship must first reckon with the West’s painfully uneven track record of interpreting, let alone navigating, developments during the Putin era. After all, no one predicted that an undistinguished, midlevel former intelligence operative would end up completely dominating Russian politics and society, let alone emerge as one of Europe’s most powerful, longest-serving, and, reportedly, wealthiest heads of state.
Following the economic free fall of the 1990s, hardly anyone forecast that average Russians would soon reap the benefits of a newfound prosperity and consumerism made possible by steady GDP growth and double-digit annual increases in real disposable income for most of the 2000s. Today, Russia has practically no sovereign debt and one of the world’s largest hard currency reserves, totaling more than $500 billion. The Russian elite has become fabulously wealthy and worldly, with nearly as many billionaires in Moscow as in New York City. Money, materialism, and consumption have become the dominant values across nearly all strata of Russian society.
Amid a generally negative portrayal in Western media of life in Putin’s Russia, many outsiders would be surprised at how much freedom the average Russian enjoys. Today the majority of Russians take for granted the ability to travel abroad, own property, build businesses, read what they want on the Internet, and, basically, be left alone by the state. These are tremendous changes on a scale that previous generations scarcely could have imagined. They also help explain the deep reservoir of support for Putin from a generally depoliticized population with no interest in returning to the deprivations and upheaval of the 1990s.
Similarly, no Western observer anticipated the wave of angry street protests in Moscow and other cities, set off by widespread allegations of electoral fraud in late 2011. Russia’s affluent urbanites showed, briefly at least, their skills at political organizing via social media and savagely mocking the country’s notoriously thin-skinned political leadership. The protesters’ powerfully simple demands for dignity, respect, and a voice in determining their own future have been echoed in more recent demonstrations by disenchanted middle-class citizens in Turkey, Brazil, and Bulgaria.
Last but not least, it’s worth pointing out that no one predicted the initial success of President Obama’s Russia policy. At the time of Obama’s inauguration, U.S.-Russian relations were at the lowest point of the post-Cold War era. Few foreign-policy experts suggested at the time that Obama would invest considerable effort in reinvigorating the relationship, let alone seize the opportunity to make progress across a broad array of issues.
Why the Reset Worked
Why did the reset succeed? Two factors stand out—Obama’s willingness to take risks in support of the Administration’s other foreign policy priorities, and Putin’s ability to act pragmatically toward the United States when he felt that doing so advanced Russian national interests.
From Washington’s perspective, Russia was critically important to its policies on Iran, global nuclear dangers, and the war effort in Afghanistan. Obama increased international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program by getting Russia to support two hard-fought sanctions resolutions in the UN Security Council and to cancel the sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Tehran. When the unreliability of supply lines through Pakistan threatened the success of the surge in Afghanistan, the Obama team persuaded the Russian leadership to create important alternative routes through Russia and other former Soviet republics. After a long pause in the bilateral arms control process thanks to the ideological rigidity of the Bush Administration, U.S. and Russian negotiators helped reinvigorate global nonproliferation efforts and successfully concluded the New START Treaty. During the Libya crisis in March 2011, intensive diplomatic efforts led by Susan Rice secured a crucial Russian abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized establishment of a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.
For Putin, the reset also paid off. It helped reverse the effects of the disastrously shortsighted war with Georgia. (On the first anniversary of that war, only Nicaragua had endorsed the Kremlin’s ham-fisted recognition of the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.) Following Medvedev’s carefully stage-managed rise to the presidency in the spring of 2008, the Kremlin’s new occupant found that he had plenty of flexibility to forge cordial relationships with Obama and other Western leaders. While there was never any doubt that Putin remained the decider on all major issues behind the scenes, Medvedev’s zeal for his role in Russian foreign policy gave his longtime friend and mentor an opening to improve relations with the United States and other leading powers. Even more importantly, Putin could achieve this goal without leaving any fingerprints or suffering the embarrassment of a public climb-down.
The Obama Administration rightly viewed these accomplishments as the product of a pragmatic (albeit decidedly transactional) approach. In the interest of securing what it termed win-win objectives, the White House removed artificial linkages between unrelated issues. For example, the Obama Administration revived an agreement on nuclear cooperation that had been shelved by the Bush Administration over the Georgia war. Bush-era missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, which had needlessly antagonized the Russian military establishment, were reconfigured. The Administration’s economics team championed Russia’s 18-year effort to join the World Trade Organization—but on terms overwhelmingly favorable to U.S. businesses. Without much public acknowledgement, the Obama team dialed back customary harangues over Russian domestic political developments and downplayed democracy promotion efforts associated with the previous Administration. It also avoided the Bush-era mistake of overpromising when it came to the distant prospect of NATO membership for countries like Ukraine and Georgia.
The personal rapport between Obama and Medvedev clearly played an important role. For both men, pride in the risks they took to bring relations back from the brink seemed genuine. Still, many critics have insisted that the Obama team put too much faith in Medvedev and clumsily favored him over Putin. That charge conveniently ignored the reality of how difficult it was to engage Putin in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse in U.S.-Russian relations. From the very beginning of Obama’s time in office, he repeatedly tried to build channels to Putin but with little success even after Putin returned to the Kremlin in spring 2012.
Unfortunately for Obama, the reset became, by virtue of its high profile, a victim of its success—and a tempting target for partisan attacks. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney claimed that Russia was “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” The Obama team quickly pounced on Romney’s misstep and painted him as out of touch. That made it practically impossible for other Obama Administration officials to recalibrate expectations about the reset, to acknowledge that much of the low-hanging fruit had already been picked, or to brace key constituencies for the possibility that Putin’s return to the Kremlin might lead to the unraveling of arrangements hammered out with Medvedev.
Of course, cycles of euphoria and disappointment in relations between the White House and Kremlin have been a fact of life since the perestroika era. For example, a dramatic surge in cooperation after 9/11 disintegrated after the Bush Administration’s rush to war in Iraq. Under President Bush, Russian anger was routinely stoked by the Administration’s predilection for unilateral action and gratuitous moves to belittle Russia’s role on the world stage. The Bush team’s behavior confirmed what was probably already in Putin’s mind: a belief that America’s real long-term agenda was little more than a CIA-led plot to undermine Russia, an effort that could be traced through the disastrous Western-backed reforms of the Yeltsin era, the enlargement of NATO to Central Europe and the Baltic states, and U.S.-backed “color revolutions” in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia in the 2000s. This narrative formed the basis of an angry, hour-long monologue from Putin at his first meeting with Obama in July 2009.
Negative sentiment toward the reset inside Russian officialdom hardly helped matters. Long before Putin publicly humiliated his successor by abruptly deciding to return to the presidency, Medvedev struck a rather unusual profile by Russian standards, thanks to his fondness for American values like government transparency and accountability as well as his conspicuous use of iPhones and Twitter. That quickly set him apart from Putin and a secretive inner circle with much longer memories of the humiliation they believe Russia has suffered at the hands of the United States. According to the dominant Russian view, Obama’s reset policy was merely the initiative of a superpower in decline. It required no meaningful changes in Russian policy since everything Obama was doing amounted to a welcome course correction after the excesses of George W. Bush.
Russian officials also tried to relegate oversight for the relationship to both countries’ foreign ministries. The move was revealing in itself—top priority foreign-policy issues are usually managed out of the Kremlin. In the Russian system, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), unlike its American counterpart at Foggy Bottom, is largely an implementing agency far from the locus of actual power and decision-making. Either way, the effectiveness of the State-MFA channel was short-lived. Russia’s top diplomats, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Representative Vitaly Churkin, reveled in antagonizing Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice on issues large and small. Clinton and Lavrov presided over a binational commission that consumed time and bandwidth within both countries’ bureaucracies yet produced few concrete results. The entire experience proved once again that the direction of U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Cold War era depends almost exclusively on the direct involvement of the two heads of state, not the institutionalization of ties between bureaucracies.
The Corrosive Effects of the Arab Spring
The wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa beginning in December 2010 took an unexpectedly large toll on U.S.-Russian relations. To be fair, both governments were thrown off balance by the Arab Spring, but their views of a region in turmoil increasingly shaped how they viewed each other. While leaders in both countries initially focused on a now-familiar list of factors behind the Arab Spring (e.g., the aspirations of a bulging youth population, Arab citizens’ desire for dignity and individual rights, grinding poverty, and the rise of social media and pan-Arab satellite television), Russian officials soon started grousing about the Obama Administration’s alleged naiveté about the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups and reluctance to prop up longtime allies like Hosni Mubarak.
It also didn’t take long for Russian thinking to veer off in the direction of conspiracy theories and myopia. In February 2011, then Deputy Premier Igor Sechin blamed “senior managers of Google” for provoking events in Tahrir Square, while Medvedev compared events in the Middle East to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, claiming that “[i]n the past such a scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts to implement it are even more likely. In any case, this plot will not work.”
The change in emphasis accelerated as protests spread to two of Moscow’s oldest allies in the region, Libya and Syria. Russia soon positioned itself as a defender of the ancien régimes in the Middle East. When then-Prime Minister Putin visited Brussels for a Russia-EU summit in late February 2011, he sarcastically suggested that the West had a long track record of shortsighted support for the rise of radical Islamic regimes. “The head of the Iranian revolution lived in Paris,” Putin said. “He enjoyed support from Western countries, but now the whole Western community is fully against Iran’s nuclear program.”
The most serious test came in March 2011 when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi threatened to go “house by house, room by room” and root out the insurgents in Benghazi like “rats.” After weeks of avoiding military intervention, the Obama Administration’s policy changed practically overnight as it weighed the likely collapse of the uprising. That created an exceptionally painful dilemma for the Russian national security team. It could veto a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing the establishment of a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect Libyan civilians—and be painted as the enabler of Gadhafi’s bloodthirsty tactics. Or it could hold its nose and abstain.
Skillful diplomacy in New York narrowed U.S.-Russian differences and led to the crucial Russian decision to abstain. Still, the Russian leadership’s ambivalence about the abstention was displayed rather bizarrely a few days later. In separate televised appearances, Putin angrily compared the Western-led military campaign to a medieval call for a crusade, while Medvedev stressed, “[E]verything that is happening in Libya is a result of the Libyan leadership’s absolutely intolerable behavior and the crimes that they have committed against their own people.” The dueling comments fostered a convenient impression that there was a serious split in the Russian leadership, allowing Putin to duck responsibility for yet another painful but necessary decision and making Medvedev the target of considerable scorn.
As the Libya war dragged on, Putin and Medvedev’s vulnerability to domestic criticism increased. Why had Russia jettisoned its long-cherished opposition to outside interference in countries’ internal affairs, critics asked. Why had Russia handed Western and Arab powers a blank check to overthrow Gadhafi? By the summer of 2011, senior Russian officials were reduced in private to complaining that the United States was taking too long to get rid of Gadhafi. To parry the criticism they faced at home, Russian officials insisted that Western backers of the war had somehow “misled” Russia about the UN resolution and pulled a bait and switch. That bore little resemblance to what had happened behind closed doors at the Security Council, of course, but Russia’s second thoughts about the Libya scenario would soon have powerful implications elsewhere in the region.
The crisis in Syria gave Russia an ideal opportunity to put these thoughts into action. Moscow’s initial reaction to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Syrian city of Dara and other population centers in the spring of 2011 had been remarkably subdued. Yet as the rebellion gained strength, Moscow’s strategy proceeded on multiple tracks. At nearly every turn, Russia benefited from the drift and incoherence that have plagued U.S. policy throughout the crisis. At the UN, Russian slow-walking and obstruction deflected international pressure on Assad, prevented creation of a legal basis for foreign military intervention, and limited international support for the rebel cause. Without publicly acknowledging it, the Putin government clung stubbornly to a belief (not widely shared at the time) that Assad might be able to shoot his way out of the crisis. In conjunction with far more robust support to Syria from Iran (and eventually Hezbollah), Russia provided limited military, financial, and energy assistance. However, on the diplomatic track, Moscow was careful to be seen as working constructively with the United States and the European powers. In the memorable phrasing of the International Crisis Group, these diplomatic efforts were “little more than inertia masquerading as motion. The West used them to pretend it was doing more than it was; Russia exploited them to feign it backed the Syrian regime less than it actually did.”
Standing by the Assad regime has been a risk worth taking in Russian eyes. Moscow fears that Assad’s overthrow would mean the loss of its sole remaining toehold in the Middle East. It also worries that with Assad gone, Iran would be more vulnerable to pressure from the United States, the EU, and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. And in the worst case—the emergence of a failed or fractured Syrian state—shockwaves of terrorist activity and Islamic radicalism would radiate toward the restive north Caucasus and other heavily Muslim regions in the Russian heartland.
Russia’s behavior during the Syria crisis has been largely cost-free. With the Obama Administration showing little inclination to insert itself forcefully into a new conflict in the Middle East, there has been no chance of a head-to-head confrontation. Western complaints about Russian military and financial assistance to Assad have been routinely ignored. Findings by Western intelligence agencies that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in limited quantities have been countered by Russian officials and even a propaganda campaign suggesting that the rebels were the real culprits. Throughout it all, officials in Washington have nurtured occasional hopes that Russia might broker a Yemen-style political dialogue between Assad and the opposition leading to formation of a transitional government and an eventual decision by Assad himself to step aside.
The bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow was also badly strained by a series of emotional showdowns at the UN Security Council. As detailed by Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy magazine, Susan Rice reportedly had been very reluctant to force Russia and China to deliver on threats to veto Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s actions. For Moscow and Beijing, any form of Security Council action might theoretically open the door to international sanctions and, ultimately, military intervention. For Rice, there was no upside in letting Assad score cheap points at the expense of a divided international community. Still, in the end, the Obama Administration chose not to block votes on resolutions pushed by European governments eager to portray themselves as actively trying to stop the killing.
The three double vetoes cast by Russia and China in October 2011, February 2012, and July 2012 created a rupture in the multilateral diplomatic process that persists as of this writing. Yet they also created a useful alibi for Washington. By playing up the deadlock at the UN, the Obama Administration had a much easier time claiming that its hands were tied and that the Russians and Chinese were thwarting attempts to force an end to Syria’s civil war. Ironically, few Russian officials seemed terribly bothered by this depiction of reality. Rather, they seemed to relish the diplomatic standoff on the Syria crisis, viewing it as proof that Moscow’s views could not be bypassed. After nearly 30 years of steady decline in Russian influence in the Middle East, Moscow was happy to be back at the center of things.
Putin and Politics
Despite the rapid accumulation of U.S.-Russian differences over the Middle East and other major foreign policy issues, the breakdown in the bilateral relationship in 2012 and 2013 was anything but foreordained. Rather, it appears that Putin deliberately drove the relationship over the cliff. Why?
It’s worth recalling that the street demonstrations and outpouring of popular disaffection after the December 2011 Duma elections created the biggest challenge to Putin’s rule since he came to power in 2000. While electoral fraud has been common practice under Putin’s system of so-called managed democracy, this time, images of vote rigging captured on activists’ cellphones went viral. That directly played on the sense of humiliation felt by the elite and more affluent members of Russian society following Putin’s bombshell announcement in September 2011 that he was returning to the Kremlin. (Putin emphasized at the time that Medvedev’s role had always been part of a ploy to get around the constitutionally mandated limit on serving two consecutive terms as president.)
Amid a party-like atmosphere at the street demonstrations, there was a growing sense that the regime was on the defensive and had lost its nerve. The euphoria of successfully challenging Putin led many of his opponents to discount the ruthlessness of the Kremlin’s political machinery. But Putin’s political comeback began almost immediately, even though it relied on themes that were widely parodied at the time. In comments just four days after the Duma election and on the eve of the first major demonstration, Putin squarely pinned responsibility for the political turbulence on outside forces, including Hillary Clinton. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that [the elections] were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers,” Putin said. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal. They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
That dog whistle echoed throughout the entire political system and unleashed a vicious campaign against Washington’s representatives—or anyone who appeared financially dependent on them. (The latter category notably included a prominent election watchdog group, Golos, which was funded partly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and was eventually forced to shut down.) When Michael McFaul, Obama’s point person on Russia and a key architect of the reset, arrived in Moscow a few weeks later as the Administration’s newly appointed ambassador, he was pilloried on state-controlled media as an American agent sent to foment revolution. Routine meetings between McFaul, a longtime scholar of Russian politics, and opposition figures were staked out by TV crews and portrayed in sinister terms. When McFaul turned to social media to counteract the propaganda blitz and communicate directly with the Russian public, it was viewed as confirmation that he was in league with the protesters.
Meanwhile, a rubber-stamp Duma churned out law after law, giving the authorities additional latitude to target political activists or portray them as alien threats to the country’s traditional values. The alien-threat charge was central to the crackdown on Pussy Riot after its performance art stunt in Moscow’s largest Orthodox cathedral and more recent moves against the LGBT community. The prosecution of a handful of prominent activists, including Alexei Navalny, sent the message that the authorities could go after anyone, even on the slimmest of pretexts. NGOs and activist groups dependent on funding from abroad were forced to register as foreign agents or face fines or imprisonment.
Putin also turned on Medvedev and his entourage for allegedly providing encouragement and financial support to the organizers of the demonstrations. Personal attacks, investigations, and leaks demolished Medvedev’s effectiveness as prime minister and paralyzed the work of the Cabinet. On a parallel track, the Kremlin began a high-profile push to “renationalize” the elite by requiring officials and employees of state companies to divest foreign investments and move their families back to Russia. These moves fostered a sense that Putin’s regime would now be based on Soviet-style values of personal loyalty and conformism, bringing an abrupt end to a period of relative openness and social mobility under Medvedev.
Putin’s strategy was as cunning as it was predictable. For nearly a decade, the regime had regularly played up the image of a Fortress Russia beset by foreign threats and fifth columnists to strengthen its legitimacy and to tap into Russian nationalist sentiment. In a politically apathetic society, nearly everyone got the message that Putin was not going anywhere. The Kremlin once again successfully played on average citizens’ fear of any return to the disorder and unruliness of the 1990s, while making an us vs. them argument aimed at Putin’s core electorate (mostly blue-collar workers, rural voters, and older and less affluent citizens in Russia’s smaller cities).
The opposition’s popular standing was further eroded by its lack of a concrete political platform to appeal to the two-thirds of Russia’s population based in smaller cities and provincial areas heavily dependent on state handouts. No credible opposition leaders emerged, and even figures like Navalny failed to garner high approval ratings among the general public. Over time, the protest movement basically crumbled and is now widely seen, even by onetime supporters, as a bust.
Can Obama Shape a Post-Reset Approach?
Sadly, the deck appears stacked against Obama’s original vision of a more productive relationship with Moscow freed of Cold War-era baggage. The media frenzy surrounding Snowden and Obama’s subsequent cancellation of a Moscow summit meeting with Putin obscured the fact that the two sides have made no progress on a common agenda to guide U.S.-Russian relations through the end of Obama’s second term. That void is likely to force the White House to accept that the reset has run its course.
In the Washington foreign-policy community, one increasingly hears suggestions that the wisest course of action would be disengagement. To avoid rewarding Putin’s brazen behavior, high-level interactions should be scaled back. By focusing on other foreign-policy issues, Obama can demonstrate that business as usual is not possible while the Kremlin engages in gratuitous anti-American theatrics (read: Snowden) or systematically suppresses domestic political opponents (read: Navalny). Meanwhile, work on priority areas such as arms control, Syria, and Iran might be better handled through routine diplomatic channels without much expectation of significant progress or pressure to generate presidential-level results.
Would a policy based on disengagement and damage limitation be successful? Perhaps. It certainly would help Obama avoid being seen as chasing after Putin and falling back into the diplomatic trap that plagued the first phase of the reset—the Russian elite’s belief that the United States needed it far more than Russia needed the United States. At this point, any renewed U.S. push for a deal on nuclear-arms reductions and missile defense will almost certainly raise the price the Russians want to extract for playing ball and heighten the President’s domestic political vulnerabilities if a deal is actually reached.
Some experts believe that pulling back would heighten Putin’s fears of international isolation and, perhaps, encourage him to change course. Putin, they argue, is reluctant to morph into a Russian version of Silvio Berlusconi at the end of his career. Yet it seems unlikely that Putin loses much sleep over what the White House thinks about him. In Putin’s mind, he is a great historical figure who has lifted Russia off its knees and re-established its great power status, warts and all. He expects to be around long after Obama and other Western counterparts leave the scene.
Unfortunately, recent history doesn’t augur well for a disengagement policy. When the Bush Administration pursued a similar approach, Moscow happily sought out a high-profile role as a spoiler, framing its policies largely in opposition to U.S. actions. Russia’s ability to be a successful revisionist power on major issues will always face certain limits, but it seems fair to expect that there will be plenty of opportunities to generate irritation or annoyance. Trying to isolate or penalize Russia is unlikely to be a cost-free proposition.
Consider Iran. It currently serves the Obama Administration’s purposes to keep Moscow engaged for as long as possible as an active member of the so-called P5+1 diplomatic process, which is aimed at limiting Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons and increasing international monitoring of its nuclear activities in exchange for possible relief on economic sanctions. Obviously, the diplomatic track has gained new urgency as the international community weighs its response to the ascendancy of newly elected President Hassan Rouhani. At some point the United States and Russia almost surely will part ways on Iran, especially if the situation slides toward military confrontation. But for now, it’s better to keep Moscow inside the tent while exhausting all nonmilitary solutions to the problem.
Nor is it a given that other Western governments will follow Washington’s lead. Relations between leading European powers and Moscow certainly do not lack for complications. Yet geographical proximity, especially in an era of declining defense budgets and waning security ties to Washington, fosters a very different attitude about how best to handle the large and potentially disruptive neighbor to the east. For most European governments, Russian economic power is no longer a trivial consideration. European countries that covet their exports to a sizable Russian market or are major consumers of Russian oil, gas, and other commodities will be reluctant to rock the boat.
The U.S.-Russian arms control process almost certainly is headed for the deep freeze, dashing Obama’s hope to cap his legacy via one more bilateral treaty. But the Kremlin, which is already spending hundreds of billions of dollars to re-equip the Russian military with modern armaments and a potentially destabilizing upgrade to the country’s ICBM force, is unlikely to complain were that to happen. It is all too convenient to play up the United States as a potential threat. Regrettably, any breakdown in negotiations between the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers would serve as a drag on the broader global nonproliferation agenda. But it will not precipitate a crisis.
We also must be realistic about U.S. capabilities to challenge or roll back Russian influence in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Shortly before leaving office, Hillary Clinton decried Moscow’s efforts to “re-Sovietize” countries that emerged from the wreckage of the USSR and pledged “to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” With the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan, the first real-world test is now upon us in Central Asia. Most visibly, the Russians are determined once and for all to shut down a U.S. Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan. As the war winds down, the importance of such facilities is likely to recede. Are U.S. strategic interests in Central Asia after 2014 going to be compelling enough to justify investing serious resources and prestige to become a counterweight to regional players like Russia and China? That seems rather doubtful.
The Obama Administration’s energies might be better expended by focusing on Moscow’s growing fears about future instability in the AfPak region. For more than a decade, the Russians have been free riders, content to let the United States take the lead in dealing with a resurgent Taliban, the elimination of terrorist threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, and an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. No more. Moscow now sees itself as a frontline state, and the Russian military leadership recently announced formation of a unified special forces command modeled on U.S. SOCOM. Sharing some of the vast experience of U.S. special operators and intelligence agencies might dampen geopolitical competition and open the door to new forms of joint activity.
The shock of the Boston Marathon bombing and the twisted path of the Tsarnaev brothers toward self-radicalization provide a vivid illustration of how the ups and downs in U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation can negatively affect our country’s security. Unfortunately, the initial boost in cooperation generated by the Boston events has already been undercut by the deep-seated hostility and mistrust between the two countries’ intelligence services. To cite just one example: When leaks from the FBI appeared to blame the Russian security services for not providing adequate information about the Tsarnaevs, the Russians retaliated by entrapping and expelling a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow whom they identified as a CIA officer. Without concerted presidential-level involvement, counterterrorism cooperation is unlikely to pay big dividends in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and beyond.
Finally, U.S. policy-makers need to think more creatively about how to engage more effectively with Russia’s leaders on the topics that preoccupy them the most—perhaps pre-eminently, Russia’s role in the global economy and its future prospects as a leading energy supplier. As my Carnegie Endowment colleague Dmitri Trenin has pointed out, “Russia’s business is business…. In stark contrast to its Soviet past, post-imperial Russia stands among the least ideological countries around the world. Ideas hardly matter, whereas interests reign supreme. It is not surprising then that the worldview of Russian elites is focused on financial interests.”
An ideal goal for a post-reset approach after the effects of the Snowden flap die down would be to align the relationship more closely with the heavily commercial focus of the Russian leadership and business elite. At the moment, topics such as the risks to the global economic outlook or the transformation of energy markets barely figure into the government-to-government dialogue, least of all at the political level. Instead, we have continually front-loaded the agenda with issues like arms control, Syria, and civil society, where our differences tend to be vast. American officials who insist that traditional security issues should have pride of place in the bilateral relationship probably exaggerate the overlap in both countries’ strategic outlook over the coming decades. Similarly, any Russian official who sounds complacent about the limited importance of the United States to Russia surely hasn’t been paying attention to how Russian markets have reacted to the impending changes in the Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing program, or to the effects of the shale revolution on Russia’s lucrative gas-export business.
Of course, there are no quick fixes for the downward trajectory in the U.S.-Russian relationship. And we should not expect that either side’s list of disagreements, frustrations, and irritants will suddenly seem less urgent or compelling. But a conscious effort by the Obama Administration to rebalance the relationship away from post-Cold War legacy issues like arms control and the relentless demands of geopolitical in-box management might form a reasonable basis for exiting the current impasse and avoiding a lengthy period of stagnation and hostility.