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The 'Reset' At One Year: The View From Moscow

  • Brian Whitmore

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, were all smiles when she presented him with a mock "reset button" in Geneva early last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, were all smiles when she presented him with a mock "reset button" in Geneva early last year.

Vladimir Putin was in favor of Barack Obama's reconfigured missile defense plan before he was against it.

When the new U.S. president announced in September that he was scrapping plans to install an advanced radar in the Czech Republic and defensive missiles in Poland in favor of a new approach relying on sea-based interceptors in southern Europe, the Russian premier hailed the move as "correct and brave."

But just months later, Putin caused more than a little bit of head scratching in Washington when he abruptly reversed course in December and slammed Obama's new approach, saying it would fundamentally disrupt the balance of power in Europe and force Russia to develop new offensive weapons in response.

That on-again, off-again quality has characterized much of Russia's relations with the United States in the year since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced at the Munich Security Conference that it was time to "press the reset button" in Russian-American relations.

That fateful phrase, uttered one year ago, was followed by a jokey presentation of a plastic red-and-yellow "reset" button by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. But substantive changes resulted as well, including a marked improvement in the rhetoric, tone, and atmosphere between Washington and Moscow. But while the barbs, bluster, and confrontation that marked much of the past decade have subsided, they have yet to be replaced by a true spirit of cooperation.

Untrustworthy Competitor

Analysts say this is partially because a significant portion of the current Russian elite, most notably the security service veterans surrounding Putin, continue to view the United States as a competitor that cannot be trusted.

Obama and Medvedev at the G8 summit in Italy in July 2009
"The main problem, of course, is very serious differences in strategic objectives between the United States and Russia," says Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "There is a gap in objectives and a gap in ideology, which makes cooperation uneasy and very limited."

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the influential Moscow-based journal "Russia In Global Affairs," says the problem runs even deeper. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the two former superpower rivals still don't really know how to deal with each other.

"There is a clear desire to improve relations, which had reached a dead end before Obama took office," Lukyanov says. "But what do Russia and America want from each other in today's world? This is not clear."

The idea behind Obama's reset with Russia was to shift the focus away from contentious issues like NATO expansion and missile defense and concentrate instead on areas where interests overlap, like arms control, the war in Afghanistan, and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

A year down the road, however, the record is mixed. A new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) was supposed to be completed by the end of 2008 when the existing Cold War-era pact expired. But negotiations have dragged on longer than expected and analysts say a new treaty could still be months away.

The United States sought, and received, permission from Moscow to transport military hardware to Afghanistan across Russian territory. But the implementation of this agreement has been spotty.

Mixed Signals

Russia has also sent mixed signals about supporting Washington's drive to impose tough sanctions on Iran in order to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions. In late September, President Dmitry Medvedev indicated support for the U.S. policy, saying "in some cases, sanctions are inevitable." But weeks later, Lavrov appeared to retreat, saying "sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive."

Lukyanov says many in the Russian elite think the United States is asking for a lot from Russia and offering little in return.

"There is just a desire on the part of the United States to solve problems that are important to them, and to get Russia's support for this," he says. "This, so far, hasn't worked."

The United States has stopped pressing hard for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a serious point of conflict during the administration of George W. Bush. Obama and other administration officials, however, have stressed repeatedly that the alliance's door is open and Moscow will not have a veto over this decision.

Russia, however, wants the United States to agree to grant it a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space as part of a new "security architecture" for Europe -- something the administration has said it will not agree to.

Felgenhauer says Russia is seeking something similar in the former Soviet space to the tacit deal Moscow got at the Yalta conference in February 1945 as World War II was winding down, when they won a free hand in Eastern Europe.

"Some kind of agreement is seen as possible in Russia, but the terms are unacceptable in the West," Felgenhauer says. "Russia is thinking in terms of a new Yalta and carving up Eurasia."

What Form Relations?

One effect the reset has had in Russia is to spark, for the first time in nearly a decade, a debate about what form Russia's relations with the United States and the West should take.

No longer looking up: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Washington has stopped pressing hard for Georgia's NATO membership.
In a recent article published in Lukyanov's journal, for example, Yevgeny Savostyanov, a former Kremlin deputy chief of staff, wrote that "there are no insurmountable obstacles against building a full-scale partnership" between Washington and Moscow.

"Recent developments in the world make it necessary to focus on a dramatic revision of Russian-U.S. relations on a scope not seen before," Savostyanov wrote. "Russia, the world's largest country, with immense resources, and the U.S., the richest, most powerful and advanced country in the world, have no imminent contradictions."

Lukyanov says a debate is going on inside the elite, but says views advocating an alliance with Washington are "marginal" at this point.

"A minority thinks Russia needs to form an alliance with the United States," he says. "And there are some who think Russia needs to take advantage of this moment, when America appears to not know what it wants."

For the time being, analysts say the predominant opinion in the foreign policy elite is that the Untied States has been weakened by a combination of the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and that Russia should push its advantage.

"Russia sees the West and the United States as its main enemy -- politically, ideologically, economically, and militarily. That is how it is seen from Russia, but not from the West," Felgenhauer says. "These are very serious differences that cannot be overcome just by brandishing small yellow boxes with red buttons."

U.S.-China Relations

That, of course, can change. And one area strategists in Moscow are keeping a close eye on is how the United States' relationship with China develops. If the Russia-U.S. reset was the theme of last year's Munich conference, this year's gathering, which kicks off today, opens with a speech by the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, and is expected to highlight Beijing's growing influence.

Like with Russia, Obama initially reached out to China in hopes of persuading Beijing to support sanctions on Iran, agree to curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions, and to revalue its currency, which Washington believes is kept at an artificially low level to boost exports.

Now Obama is taking a tougher line with China, and Lukyanov says Moscow is watching very closely.

"An interesting period is starting in which the United States is trying to demonstrate to China that America remains a powerful world leader," Lukyanov says. "The result of this attempt will seriously influence Russian-American relations.

"If China holds its ground and demonstrate political strength vis-a-vis the United States, then this will strengthen the position of those in Russia who believe that the period of American dominance is over and Russia must act accordingly. But if it goes the other way, then the belief that you need to take American strength into account will grow."

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