Autor: Jan Hornát
When Barack Obama entered the presidential office in January 2009 the relations between the United States and the Russian Federation were at their worst since the end of the Cold War. The deterioration of relations between the two countries was partly caused by the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis, in which Washington sided with the government in Tbilisi – but this issue was not the sole cause of the increasingly troublesome relations. As early as February 2009, Vice President Joe Biden claimed that the U.S. and Russia needed to push a “reset button” on their mutual relation. His words were the harbinger of a new policy posture towards Russia initiated by the Obama administration, which aimed to ameliorate the American relationship with Moscow. However, the so-called ‘reset’ brought debatable outcomes and little achievements. Some critics consider the policy a complete failure, while the Obama administration pinpoints to its alleged successes. This paper will aim to analyze the obstacles the ‘reset’ policy faced and what caused its assumed failure. Is the blame of the allegedly failed policy on the side of Obama’s administration or did unforeseen circumstances intervene in the implementation of the ‘Russian reset’? What is the future of Obama’s ‘reset’?
Why Did the Relations Need a ‘Reset’?
The ‘Russian reset’ was the first foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration and as Barack Obama mentioned it was intended to reverse the “dangerous drift” in the bilateral relations. This “dangerous drift” has its roots already in the early 1990s and assuming it was caused by the Georgia-Russia crisis would be myopic.
During the Bill Clinton years, the United States approached Russia in many aspects as the “defeated” nation of the Cold War and along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pushed Russia to accept the so-called “Washington consensus”. This “aid with strings-attached” provided by the Western institutions caused many hasty decisions in Russia and for example led to the poorly regulated privatization, which gave rise to the Russian oligarchic class. For these reasons, many Russian citizens perceive the American role in post-Cold War Russia as a “national tragedy” and claim that the U.S. did little help and much damage in Russia’s transformation in the 1990s. Of course, only a portion of the Russian population holds such sentiments toward the United States, but along with government propaganda, this portion of the population helps create strong anti-American sentiments and animosities within Russia.
In addition, Moscow holds the eastward expansion of NATO as Washington’s “broken promise” and a humiliation for its security. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks Russian president Vladimir Putin offered the United States certain help in the “War on Terror” in the form of supply routes leading through the Russian territory to Afghanistan. Putin expected a certain quid pro quo deal with the Bush administration, but received basically nothing in return. Therefore, certain analysts observing the evolution of U.S.-Russia relations after the Cold War argued that “the iron curtain has been replaced by the cultural curtain”. Yet Cold War thinking is still prevalent in many aspects of the relations – the two states still perceive each other as rivals and Russia is suspicious of any U.S. military presence in its “near abroad” (e.g. Moscow was very active in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which pressed the United States to leave the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan).
The aforementioned Georgian crisis and a plan of the Bush administration to build missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic brought the U.S.-Russia relationship even closer to a deadlock and therefore the Obama administration took the first step to improve the bilateral relations.
The Goals of the ‘Reset’
The official initiation of the ‘reset’ policy took place on March 6, 2009 in Geneva. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton met her counterpart Sergei Lavrov and presented him with a gift – a prop ‘reset’ button. Clinton’s gift to Lavrov, however, was a symbolic portent of the future of the new policy. The prop button was supposed to have the word ‘reset’ printed on the top in Russian, yet the U.S. side translated the term incorrectly and instead printed the word peregruzka, which means “overcharge” or “overload”.
The main idea behind Obama’s ‘reset’ was to leave all former disputes behind, erase Cold War thinking and prevalent animosities between the two countries and start over in building a solid base for a new and improved mutual relationship. Obama also emphasized the pursuit of common foreign policy interests and creation of win-win situations. In parallel to engagement with the Russian government, the Obama administration also intended to engage directly with Russian society as well as facilitate greater contacts between American and Russian business leaders, civil society organizations, and students “to promote economic interests, enhance mutual understanding between the two nations, and advance universal values”.
Obama sought to minimize security risks between the two countries, but many analysts and politicians in the United States accused the president of “appeasement” with the Russians and argued that the ‘reset’ is an analogy of Obama’s weakness and inability to assume a tough stance toward Moscow. Nonetheless, the ‘reset’ was basically in line with Obama’s foreign policy and security posture – from the beginning of his presidency he aimed to decrease U.S. footprint in the world and tame the “superpower mentoring” that Washington has been practicing since the end of the Cold War.
Alleged Successes and Failures of the Policy
The main accomplishment of the ‘Russian reset’ came one year after the initiation of the policy. In Prague, on April 8, 2010, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama signed a treaty reducing the amount of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half and setting the limit of deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550. The new START, as the treaty came to be called, had rather a symbolic meaning as both countries still maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of causing extensive nuclear annihilation. The treaty is considered as a component of the ‘reset’ but is far short of an Obama-envisioned “global zero” world.
The Obama administration also likes to pinpoint the creation of the so-called “Obama-Medvedev Commission” (officially the U.S.–Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission) as a success of the ‘reset’. Launched in July 2009, the commission consists of nineteen working groups focusing on various issues in the bilateral relationship ranging from energy, military cooperation and international security to civil society and rule of law. The official purpose of the Commission is “identifying areas of cooperation and pursuing joint projects and actions that strengthen strategic stability, international security, economic well-being, and the development of ties between the Russian and American people”. Nevertheless, this dialogue has not received as much attention as for example the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the U.S. and China and has not brought major outcomes.
Other practical successes of the ‘reset’ policy are quite hard to find. The White House claims that the ‘reset’ sped up the process of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and some analysts claim that a success of the ‘reset’ was Russia not vetoing resolution no. 1973 of the UN Security Council, which mandated the no-fly zone over Libya. These points are, however, debatable and were rather the outcome of pragmatism than the ‘reset’ policy.
What the policy did not achieve was its primary goal – to build a solid foundation for a stable relationship. All in all, the ‘reset’ policy ameliorated relations with Russia only for a limited period of time. As Medvedev received criticism inside Russia for “selling out the country to the West” and as it became more obvious that Vladimir Putin would assume presidency in 2012, Medvedev slowly withdrew from further engagement with Obama. More recently, the Obama administration has failed to convince Russia to engage in the conflict in Syria or impose sanctions on Iran.
Failure or Lost Opportunity?
Sally McNamara of the Heritage Foundation argues that the “U.S. reset experience has already demonstrated that Moscow merely uses such initiatives to engineer enormous concessions from the West, while conceding almost nothing in return”. This statement clearly shows the misperception of the ‘reset’ in both countries – while the United States perhaps expected too much in return for treating Russia as an equal partner, the Russians expected that the Americans would be meeting them “halfway” in the pursuit of their national interests and “remove the foolishness of the Bush era”. In the long run, however, both countries were not willing to change their mindset and approach their relationship as partners.
The ‘reset’ was primarily built around the good personal relationship between Obama and Medvedev and thus when Putin re-assumed the office of Russian president, the main building block of the policy was shattered. Perhaps the Obama administration was too short-sighted or idealistic and placed a “clearly risky bet on Medvedev” while framing the policy. In addition, the relationship was further deteriorated by the choice of U.S. ambassador to Russia in January 2012. Obama chose Michael McFaul, a non-career diplomat, who had trouble with local media and met with opposition figures on his second day at the embassy. McFaul’s expressions in Russian media (e.g. “Russia is a wild country”) spurred discontent among certain Russians and especially among Russian politicians.
Furthermore, Vladimir Putin won a strong mandate in the presidential election and came to office with a vision of Russia that does not permit foreign countries to meddle in its internal affairs. As a sign of his strong posture, Putin expelled the US AID agency and cancelled the Nunn-Lugar program, which aimed to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states. In reaction to the recently passed U.S. Magnitsky bill, Putin approved a law banning U.S. parents from adopting Russian children.
From Putin’s recent behavior toward the United States, one can claim that the ‘reset’ was not a lost opportunity – there basically was no opportunity. In fact, the Obama administration used the “window of opportunity” when Putin left office and attempted to negotiate with a more accommodating president. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now quite clear that Putin intended to return to presidency as soon as Medvedev’s term ended and thus Obama’s ‘reset’ with Medvedev was wasted once Putin returned to office. The failure of the ‘reset’ policy was mainly caused by the reluctance of both sides to respect each other’s national interests and foreign policy goals. None of the two sides was willing to make concessions to the other.
The future of Obama’s ‘reset’ policy is unknown. However, it is very likely that the Obama administration will have to envision a different policy toward Putin’s Russia than it did toward Medvedev’s Russia – this time less accommodating and much firmer. But as the U.S. Congress recently repealed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (a Cold War remnant which limited trade with Russia) and the Russian Federation became a member of the WTO, bilateral trade between the U.S. and Russia will likely increase in the medium-term, thus increasing the interdependence between the two countries and perhaps providing a steadier foundation for better political relations.
- “J. McCain: ‘Reset’ policy was a total failure”, The Lithuania Tribune, May 8, 2012.
- “John Bolton: Obama’s policy of ‘reset’ with Russia completely failed”, Kavkaz Center, August 5, 2011.
- “Putin agrees: USAID meddling in Russian politics”, Russia Today, September 20, 2012.
- Blank, Stephen, “Assessing the Russian Reset Policy”, inFocus Quarterly, Vol. IV: Number 4 (Winter 2010).
- Cohen, Stephen F., “Obama’s Russia ‘Reset’: Another Lost Opportunity?”, The Nation, June 20, 2011, pp. 11-18.
- English, Robert D., “A ‘Reset’ for Relations? Understanding Russian Grievances”, Global Dialogue, Winter/Spring 2009, pp. 50-63.
- Joffe, Julia, “The Undiplomat”, Foreign Policy, May 30, 2012.
- Khoklova, Veronica, “Russia, U.S.: Peregruzka Perezagruzka”, Global Voices, March 13, 2009.
- Krauthammer, Charles, “Obama’s record of appeasement: On Russia and Iran, he has been completely ineffective”, New York Daily News, December 15, 2011.
- McNamara, Sally, “The Failure of the ‘Russia Reset’: Next Steps for the United States and Europe”, The Backgrounder, No. 2637, January 5, 2012, pp. 1-11.
- Roth, Zachary, “Global Zero: Obama’s Distant Goal of a Nuclear-Free World”, The Atlantic, September 29, 2011.
- Saunders, Paul J., “Why Obama’s ‘Reset’ With Russia is Failing”, The Atlantic, March 7, 2012.
- The White House, “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet”, Office of the Press Secretary, June 24, 2010.
- U.S. Embassy Moscow Press Office, Obama-Medvedev Commission, October, 2009.
- Whitlock, Craig, “Reset Sought on Relations with Russia, Biden Says”, Washington Post, February 8, 2009.
 Whitlock, Craig, “Reset Sought on Relations with Russia, Biden Says”, Washington Post, February 8, 2009. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/07/AR2009020700756.html (accessed December 29, 2012).
 For example, former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton or Presidential candidate John McCain spoke out strongly against Obama’s ‘reset’. See: The Lithuania Tribune, “J. McCain: ‘Reset’ policy was a total failure”, May 8, 2012. Available at http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/12559/j-mccain-%E2%80%98reset%E2%80%99-policy-was-a-total-failure-201212559/ (accessed December 29, 2012) and Kavkaz Center, “John Bolton: Obama’s policy of ‘reset’ with Russia completely failed”, August 5, 2011. Available at http://www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2011/08/05/14899.shtml (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Blank, Stephen, “Assessing the Russian Reset Policy”, inFocus Quarterly, Vol. IV: Number 4 (Winter 2010). Available at http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/2134/russian-reset-policy (accessed December 29, 2012).
 English, Robert D., “A ‘Reset’ for Relations? Understanding Russian Grievances”, Global Dialogue, Winter/Spring 2009, p. 50-52.
 Cohen, Stephen F., “Obama’s Russia ‘Reset’: Another Lost Opportunity?”, The Nation, June 20, 2011, p. 15.
 English, Robert D., “A ‘Reset’ for Relations? Understanding Russian Grievances”, p. 54.
 Correct translation of ‘reset’ is perezagruzka. Khoklova, Veronica, “Russia, U.S.: Peregruzka Perezagruzka”, Global Voices, March 13, 2009. Available at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/03/13/russia-us-peregruzka-perezagruzka/ (accessed December 29, 2012).
 The White House, “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet”, Office of the Press Secretary, June 24, 2010. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-russia-relations-reset-fact-sheet (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Krauthammer, Charles, “Obama’s record of appeasement: On Russia and Iran, he has been completely ineffective”, New York Daily News, December 15, 2011. Available at http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/obama-record-appeasement-russia-iran-completely-ineffective-article-1.992067#ixzz2GREKG7cp (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Roth, Zachary, “Global Zero: Obama’s Distant Goal of a Nuclear-Free World”, The Atlantic, September 29, 2011. Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/09/global-zero-obamas-distant-goal-of-a-nuclear-free-world/245806/ (accessed December 29, 2012).
 U.S. Embassy Moscow Press Office, Obama-Medvedev Commission, October, 2009. Available athttp://moscow.usembassy.gov/obama-medvedev.html (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Cohen, Stephen F., “Obama’s Russia ‘Reset’: Another Lost Opportunity?”, p. 14.
 McNamara, Sally, “The Failure of the ‘Russia Reset’: Next Steps for the United States and Europe”, The Backgrounder, No. 2637, January 5, 2012, p. 2.
 Joffe, Julia, “The Undiplomat”, Foreign Policy, May 30, 2012. Available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/05/30/michael_mcfaul_undiplomat (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Saunders, Paul J., “Why Obama’s ‘Reset’ With Russia is Failing”, The Atlantic, March 7, 2012. Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/why-obamas-reset-with-russia-is-failing/254115/ (accessed December 29, 2012).
 Joffe, Julia, “The Undiplomat”.
 “Putin agrees: USAID meddling in Russian politics”, Russia Today, September 20, 2012. Available at http://rt.com/politics/putin-usaid-russia-washington-moscow-557/ (accessed December 29, 2012).