The Russian-US “Reset” Six Years On

The reset was designed to stabilize Russian-US relations, with a focus on preventing the collapse of the arms control regime. The United States and Russia agreed to sign the New START Treaty and to normalize economic relations.

Sergey Rogov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, gave a news conference recently on Russian-US relations since Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first met in Geneva six years ago to reset Russian-US relations.

Rogov believes that the United States and Russia were close to a new cold war in 2008, and the only thing that prevented it was Senator John McCain losing the presidential election. The Obama administration chose a different path. The US economy was in free-fall, and the foreign policy situation was not much better. Washington was losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reset was designed to stabilize Russian-US relations, with a focus on preventing the collapse of the arms control regime. The Unite+d States and Russia agreed to sign the New START Treaty and to normalize economic relations.

But after the goals of the reset were achieved in 2010, the problems in the relationship moved back to the forefront.

Rogov believes that Russian-US relations are cyclical, moving from détente to chill to crisis and back to détente. The current chill is a reflection of the fact that the Russian-US partnership mostly remained on paper. It also exposes the limits of the economic relationship. The Obama administration convinced the Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, but it was immediately replaced by the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russia alone.

In the nuclear sphere as well, the United States and Russia continue to adhere to the policy of mutual nuclear deterrence, also known as mutual assured destruction, which is not how partners should act, Rogov said.

Post-Soviet countries are dealing with sharp internal divisions. The Clinton and Obama administrations interpreted the end of the Cold War as a US victory, and when there is a winner there must also be a loser, which is how Washington views Russia. The United States focused on filling the vacuum left by Russia’s withdrawal from Eastern Europe. NATO and the EU continued to expand, first to the former socialist countries and then to the former Soviet republics, in particular the Baltic countries.

Currently we are witnessing a pitched battle for Ukraine, which goes back to the Bush administration’s push for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia back in 2008, Rogov said.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the new Russian government believed erroneously that the former Soviet republics were an unwanted burden that needed to be shaken off. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was seen as a kind of civilized divorce. Only recently has Russia begun to seek greater integration through the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The coup in Kiev a year ago was the result of a strategy pursued by the EU and, to a lesser degree, by the United States. The EU launched the Eastern Partnership initiative to forge closer ties with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the other post-Soviet republics. Since it did not include Russia, it was spearheaded against it. And while Moscow’s economic ties with former Soviet republic had weakened over the past 20 years, they still remained considerable.

According to Rogov, the United States joined the process at the last stage, when the Yanukovych government was replaced by a pro-American, ultra-nationalist and anti-Russian regime. Russia’s response to these developments, including the reintegration of Crimea, caught the West off guard. But once it regained footing, the West essentially declared a new cold war – scaling back diplomatic relations, reviving the “no business as usual” policy, and keeping contacts with Russia to a minimum.

It also introduced economic restrictions, initially symbolic sanctions against individuals and then sectoral restrictions that targeted the pillars of the Russian economy – energy, the defense industry and the financial sector – effectively denying Russia access to loans and high technology.

The effect of economic restrictions has been compounded by the falling price of oil, for which there are several possible explanations. Some see signs of the 1980s in the current situation and presume that the United States and Saudi Arabia have conspired to deliver a painful blow to Russia. However, low oil prices have also affected the United States, sapping the shale revolution of its strength.

The Russian economy has been hit hard by plummeting oil prices. It is not dead, but it is moving from stagnation to recession. The ruble has lost more than half of its value, causing a lot of pain, though not as much as the dramatic collapse of the Ukrainian hryvnia. Russia’s problems can be solved if it avoids self-imposed isolation.

The new cold war was sparked by decisions taken by the Obama administration. Theoretically, the sanctions could have been lifted, because they were time limited, were it not for two very important events. The first was the new National Security Strategy, which set the goal of deterring “Russian aggression.” The second was the Republican victory in the November 2014 midterm elections, which led to several extremely anti-Russian laws being passed by the new Congress.

Other actions by the Obama administration, such as extending the sanctions against Russia by one year, show that this is not a short-term policy but a long-term strategy, considering that the US presidential race will be in high gear when the sanctions are up for reauthorization again in March 2016.

Who will win in 2016? Republicans, who are dissatisfied with Obama’s policy, accuse him of being soft on Russia and call for the US to withdraw from the INF and START treaties, or Hillary Clinton who compared Putin to Hitler?

Polls show that 70 percent of Americans have a negative attitude to Russia, which is again seen as the number one threat to the United States. Anti-American sentiment in Russia has soared to above 80 percent. These changes in public opinion are a further drag on the relationship. It is easy to destroy relations, as the past year has shown, but improving them may take years.

Sergey Rogov said that Russia and the United States have many common interests such as preventing terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regional conflicts. Unfortunately, they have been pushed aside. We are witnessing a growing trend towards multipolar chaos.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.