The Reset Button is Pushed on Russia: What Next?

March 6, 2009

In the first year of his presidency, Bush famously looked into Putin’s “soul” and found a man he could trust. The results have been disastrous. Putin was able to use his personal friendship with Bush to insulate himself from American criticism as he undermined Russia’s fledgling democratic institutions, restricted civil liberties, and consolidated power. When the warm personal relationship unraveled, little serious attention to either our important shared interests of areas of friction with a leading energy, nuclear and geostrategic player remained.  The failure to develop a more thorough understanding with Russia, combined with the administration’s push for NATO expansion along Russia’s border, helped facilitate the Russia-Georgia conflict.

Today, Secretary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov with – literally – a “reset button” for the US-Russia relationship.  Her gesture at their first meeting capped forty days of positive signals to Moscow on the need to forge a new relationship based around “mutual respect” and  the urgent need for cooperation on a range of issues including Iran, Afghanistan, nonproliferation, and European – Russian relations. Under Secretary of State Bill Burns had already visited Moscow, and President Obama had earlier sent a letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev offering to forgo missile defense in Europe for Russian help in addressing Iran. This, along with other gestures signaling the Obama administration’s willingness to pursue a new relationship, was received warmly in Moscow. But a reset button is not a new soul.  Moscow remains determined to project power, limit human rights at home, play politics with oil and gas and exclude the US from a sphere of influence in its surrounding countries.  The challenge ahead is in maintaining perspective and signaling Russia clearly both on our disagreements and where we are willing to work together.

Busy week marks turning point in U.S.-Russian relations.   Obama, Clinton and other officials have reached out to Russia on multiple fronts, signaling a new tone and pragmatic possibilities for cooperation.  The New York Times reports that “President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.” Additionally, the administration “set Moscow’s security community abuzz by signaling Washington’s willingness to work up a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which would otherwise expire at the end of this year… The high-level meetings ahead between the US and Russia are likely to be followed by intense activity as the two sides strive to map out a fresh accord by the Dec. 5 deadline,“ reports the Christian Science Monitor.  The AP reports that “Seven months after breaking ties with Russia over its invasion of Georgia, the NATO alliance moved Thursday toward resuming formal relations despite lingering concerns about Moscow’s approach to reasserting its regional influence.”  And Clinton’s first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, at which she handed over a small red button marked “reset,” made the agenda clear.  [NY Times, 3/2/09. CS Monitor, 3/5/09. Associated Press, 3/6/09. NY Times, 3/06/09]

Cooperation with Russia is essential for addressing core foreign policy challenges such as Iran’s nuclear development, nuclear proliferation, energy security, and the crisis in Afghanistan.   As a 2006 Council on Foreign Relations task force report says, “U.S.-Russian cooperation can help the United States to handle some of the most difficult challenges it faces: terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, tight energy markets, climate change, the drug trade, infectious diseases, and human trafficking. These problems are more manageable when the United States has Russia on its side rather than aligned against it.” Additionally, Russia is a necessary partner in America’s efforts in Afghanistan. This issue was “underscored this month when the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan announced that a crucial American military base that supplies forces in nearby Afghanistan would be closed — apparently at Moscow’s urging. At the same time, the Russians said they would let nonlethal cargo for the American-led NATO mission be transported across Russia,” reports the New York Times.  NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently expressed the importance of the West working with Russia, saying: “Russia is a global player. Not talking to them is not an option.”  [CFR, 2006. NY Times, 2/21/09. Reuters, 3/05/09]

For years, U.S. policy towards Russia has lacked strategic direction and has been based on maintaining a personal relationship, not advancing national interests. The Obama administration has inherited a derelict Russia policy.  President Bush based his approach to Russia on his personal relationship with Putin. In 2001, when President Bush and Vladimir Putin met for the first time, Bush infamously declared, “I looked the man in the eye.  I was able to get a sense of his soul.”  While the Bush administration viewed the close personal relationship as signaling a new alliance and common understanding with Russia, Putin used the personal relationship to insulate himself from American criticism as he consolidated his power, undermined democratic institutions, and suppressed civil liberties. Furthermore, having misread the relationship, the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic missile treaty and pushed for NATO expansion without having reached a broader understanding with Russia. This latter choice disastrously contributed to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.  As the New York Times notes, the “exuberant support of the United States for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a figure loathed by the Kremlin on both personal and political terms,” helped foster antagonism between the two counties that led to the conflict.  This not only soured the relationship with Russia but undermined NATO expansion efforts. Now the US faces a steep challenge with few good options. [BBC, 12/13/01. NY Times, 3/15/08. The Times, 7/16/07. Vice-President Cheney, 5/4/06. NY Times, 8/10/08. NSN Russia Policy Paper]

Even a “reset” relationship will still pose significant challenges, disagreements. Russia and the U.S. will each pursue their own national interests, but should work together on areas of mutual concern and attempt to mitigate areas of disagreement. So far, Russian behavior toward the new Obama administration has been mixed. Russia has signaled its willingness to work with the U.S., but it has also taken action to constrain U.S. options.  For instance, just a few days into Obama’s presidency, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced “that Moscow was ready to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan by allowing cargo destined for U.S. and coalition forces there to be shipped across Russia,” according to the Associated Press.  But a few days later, “Russia announced a financial rescue fund for a group of ex-Soviet allies and won their agreement to form a military rapid reaction force in the region that it said would match North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards. That came a day after Kyrgyzstan announced, at Russian urging, that it planned to evict the U.S. from the base it has used to ferry large numbers of American troops into Afghanistan” – a move that appeared calculated to make the U.S. more dependent on Russia’s offer of assistance with supply routes.   Russia’s economic strength has declined significantly as a result of the economic crisis and forecasts predict a 2.2% contraction in GDP. Nevertheless, Russia’s huge energy wealth means that it retains considerable capacity to project influence in the region, something it demonstrated this winter as Vladimir Putin “ordered natural gas shut off to Ukraine, in the process cutting supplies to Europe.” These signs indicate that to forge agreements with Russia on issues like Iran, nonproliferation, and energy will be challenging. At home, there is little near-term prospect of improvement on human rights concerns that many in the US have raised. While it is good that the Obama administration has sought to move toward a Russia policy based on interests instead of personal feelings, partnering with Russia will not be without friction, requiring a realistic and consistent approach. As Secretary Clinton said today “We are entering into our renewed relationship with our eyes open.” [Pravda, 2/18/09. NY Times, 1/29/09. AP, 1/23/09. WSJ, 2/05/09. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 3/06/09]

What We’re Reading

U.S. unemployment rose to 8.1%.  Senate Republicans blocked an omnibus spending bill, forcing Democrats to prepare a stopgap budget resolution to prevent the federal government from shutting down.

Mullah Omar calls for a Taliban “surge” in Afghanistan and no attacks in Pakistan on fellow Muslims.  The New York Times looks at how the Swat valley truce is giving more leeway to local Taliban forces.

Kyrgyzstan cancelled airbase agreements for members of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.  The U.S. seeks strengthen the supply chain to Afghanistan so that it can increase supplies by 50% to support the troop increase.

British Foreign Secretary David Milliband says Pakistan faces a “mortal threat.”

The U.K. will resume talks with Hezbollah.

Secretary of State Clinton would like to include Iran in talks on Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met her Russian counterpart today and discussed the prospects for improving relations.  Embattled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is back in Moscow for a second trial.

Retired intelligence operatives criticize plans to investigate the CIA’s actions under the Bush administration.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for reconciliation with followers of Saddam Hussein.  As oil revenues fall, Iraq makes budget cuts.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao seconded calls for closer ties with Taiwan.  Taiwan says it is not ready for any talks beyond economic and trade issues.

China will spend dramatically to grow and recover from the financial crisis.

South Korea called for North Korea to retract its threat to civilian planes.  North Korea continues to struggle with a hunger crisis.

A U.N. panel censured Sudan’s expulsion of foreign aid groups.

Commentary of the Day

Iran’s former ambassador to France says that the U.S. needs an entirely new Iran policy, one that treats Iran as an equal partner.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at the exit strategy for Iraq and argues for redoubled diplomatic efforts to preserve gains made in the war.

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