When Vice President Joe Biden called for hitting the “reset” button in the U.S.-Russia relationship in February 2009, he sparked criticism in certain circles in Washington that the new Administration was trying to wipe the slate clean too soon after Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia. His plea was received with skepticism in Moscow, too, among those who doubted the Obama team’s sincerity. And yet nearly two years into it, the reset appears to have produced notable successes. Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have signed the New START treaty; reached an agreement on cooperation on Afghanistan; bridged positions in addressing the Iranian nuclear program, with Russia supporting the latest UN Security Council sanctions resolution; and created an infrastructure for bilateral cooperation—the Presidential Bilateral Commission, consisting of 16 working groups on issues as diverse as nuclear cooperation, space, health, military-to-military, cultural and sports exchange, and civil society. In addition, neither leader let the summer’s somewhat surreal spy scandal spoil relations. This certainly looks like progress compared to the summer of 2008 when, at the moment of the Russian-Georgian conflict, Russian-U.S. relations came close to a confrontation.
Today, as Obama calls Medvedev his “friend and partner” and Medvedev declares that “Russian-American relations have immense potential”, there is, at the very least, a change in the air.1 Russian anti-Americanism, for example, is way down: In 2007 only 43 percent of respondents viewed the United States positively, while 47 percent took a negative view; now 60 percent express a positive opinion and only 27 percent have a negative view.2 This turnabout has suggested to some that, after two failed post-Cold War attempts to build a stable relationship of cooperation (between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and between Vladimir Putin and George Bush during their first terms, 2000–04), a real breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations has finally come about. Many Americans and some Europeans, furthermore, believe that the Obama Administration deserves credit for it.
What is the case for thinking that the “reset” has ushered in the real thing? Some optimists credit the power of personality. Not only has the charming, magnanimous and artful Obama replaced the accident-prone Dubya; the less-severe Medvedev has displaced Putin, the man responsible for the previous cooling of relations. But more than personality accounts for the good news, the argument goes. Obama seems to believe that he cannot secure Russian cooperation on high-priority policy areas while at the same time kicking Moscow in the shins in all the others. The Russian leadership, for its part, now understands that the country’s status and prospects depend on genuine structural modernization of the economy and the social development that must go with it. The rational Medvedev knows what the pugnacious Putin did not: Russia, Medvedev stated clearly, “needs special modernization alliances” with the United States and other Western countries.3 These two trends are mutually reinforcing: A less noisome tone from Washington helps Medvedev make the case for closer ties, while Moscow’s new pragmatism helps Obama protect the multifaceted Russia policy portfolio from special pleaders and ideologues of various stripes.
This is the best case for optimism to come along in some time, and it is boosted, too, by the fact that many well-intentioned people in Russia and America want it to be true. We have abused each other for too long since the end of the Soviet Union, they would say. With the ideological abyss behind us now for more than two decades, it is time to dispel once and for all the shadow of the Cold War. To say it as FDR might have, we have nothing to fear but the memory of our fears!
If only reality would cooperate with such noble sentiment. What separates Russia and America are not just old ideologies and the legacy of divergent histories and political cultures, but current divergences of both values and interests. These are so pervasive and fundamental that even apparent coincidences of interest often turn out to disappoint. One can reset a computer with the push of a button, but there is no key to delete the fact that America and Russia rest on different principles, no toggle to make geography and related security and economic interests vanish only to reappear in new forms. Even at their sagacious best, Russian and American leaders do not share the same view of the world.
The optimistic view of the reset overlooks an asymmetry in each side’s motivations: They want to get a lot for a little, and failing to achieve that, each will blame the other side for what went awry. Thus, in Washington’s eyes, improved relations with Russia initially were instrumental to the success of genuinely big-ticket concerns: the non-proliferation agenda so dear to the President, with a particular focus on Iran, and help in stabilizing Afghanistan. To achieve agreement on these, the Administration had to profess the absence of linkage with issues, like Georgia, that could spoil the Administration’s prioritized transactions. This it presented as a sign of maturity, though the appearance of trading missile defense radars in Poland and the Czech Republic for Russian consideration on other issues made the non-linkage claim a little hard to credit. In due course it revealed linkage for what it is, a fact of life and not a procedural spigot that can be turned on and off at will.
In the end, it looks as if the Administration got rather less than it hoped after protractions it did not anticipate, particularly in the arms control business, and it had to give far more than originally budgeted. The result is that an improved American-Russian relationship, touted by the Obama Administration as one of its major foreign policy successes, has become an end in itself. The Administration, in short, has made lemonade out of the lemons it happens to be holding, and served it up as public relations posturing. A genuine success it is not—at least not yet.
Russian leaders are bound to be disappointed, too. Ultimately, they want a lot: U.S. acknowledgement of what amounts to a Russian sphere of interest in its former imperial domain and a free pass on their own internal political developments. In return, they hope to give as little as possible. If Barack Obama is the Niebuhrian realist of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, maybe such a sphere is imaginable, at least as long as it is not the old-fashioned kind with occupying armies, politicians pushed from balconies and quisling Kremlin mouthpieces ruling in neighboring capitals. But if Barack Obama is in fact a neo-Wilsonian believer in a global legal-institutional cooperative order that disparages spheres of influence as “so 19th century”, then not even a modernized, “lite” version of a Russian sphere of interest is going to go down well in Washington.
So far, the U.S. President looks more like Wilson than Niebuhr. The American side does not accept a Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet area. Washington has already rejected Medvedev’s initiative to create a new Euro-Atlantic security system, which would mean undermining NATO and the OSCE. The United States is not about to walk away from the post-Cold War territorial and political status quo in Europe, and its reasons could be as much idealist as realist in nature.
If that is so, then Obama’s Washington cannot be happy with the Kremlin’s base motivation for its modernization effort. To both Western and Russian liberals, economic dynamism must rest on an institutional order that embraces freedom and social justice. But what Medvedev is up to has a long and storied precedent in Russian history: Like Peter the Great and Stalin before him, Medvedev wants to ensure the old political system’s survival and return Russia to its role as a great world power. He seeks to maintain an authoritarian status quo through the politically sanitized import of Western innovation. Nothing suggests that Russian authorities are ready to abandon the personalized system of power they lord over. Apparently, they believed that Obama would assist this project because, as a realist, he does not concern himself with Russia’s internal affairs.
Obama would face a trap were he to tie his reset with Medvedev’s attempt to reinvigorate old Russia in a new disguise. He would discover that grand bargains with even mild authoritarians always come at the expense of principles. He would realize that the “reset” and Medvedev’s modernization initiative coincide with a tightening of the screws on the Russian domestic front. Notwithstanding the soft rhetoric, Medvedev has endorsed broadening the powers of the FSB to include intimidation of opponents of the regime. To be charitable, Medvedev must not notice how law enforcement organs brutally disperse the rallies in defense of the Constitution, how human rights activists are jailed for peacefully carrying the nation’s flag to celebrate Flag Day, how journalists and ordinary citizens are beaten to show that any transgression will not be tolerated. Under his presidency, new legislation is ready to further curtail the right to organize public demonstrations and to grant law enforcement organizations the power to shut down Internet providers that host websites critical of the regime. As if to dispel any doubts as to where Russia is moving, Putin promised that those who attend non-sanctioned demonstrations would “be whacked over their heads with a trancheon.”4 For domestic political reasons, Obama could not ignore these facts even if he wanted to.
As the second anniversary of the reset approaches, we thus confront a paradox. The air between Russia and the United States is clearer, but its oxygen content is still very modest. Whatever each side hoped, sought or claimed in the past two years, both are now privately reconciled to more limited kinds of trade-offs. Even these trade-offs will likely prove difficult. Consider the “common interests” that almost everyone acknowledges Russia and the United States share: non-proliferation, Iran and Afghanistan.
Russia and the United States have different interpretations of the New START treaty. The Obama Administration sees the deal though the prism of non-proliferation policy, and so joins it to the President’s global nuclear zero initiative. The Kremlin sees it not only as means to return Russia to great power role, but also as a tool for foiling, or at the very least complicating, American plans for missile defense in Europe.
On Iran, Moscow has supported some sanctions but resisted others, and it has sent conflicting signals over whether the transfer of S-300 missiles to Iran is prohibited under the UN resolution (at least until Medvedev decreed against transferring them on September 22). At the same time, Lukoil has announced new investment plans in Iran, and the Russian government, as of this writing, is continuing to help Iran toward its goal of bringing the Bushehr nuclear reactor fully online early next year. Neither the Russian elite nor Russian society in general perceives a nuclear Iran as a serious threat. Russia also has other reasons to avoid straining relations with Iran. Iran has shown restraint in the former Soviet area, but it could change this posture to hurt Russia if it follows the American line. Moscow’s independent position on Iran also resonates among the elite as evidence of Russia’s important geopolitical role. The elite’s readiness to accept the U.S. position on Iran will always be limited by its desire to prevent Russia from being perceived as a junior partner of the United States.
As to Afghanistan, Russian authorities do not wish to see another Taliban government in Kabul. They do not need another source of anti-Russian Islamism near its own territory, so they do not want the United States to lose the war outright. They benefit, however, from an America bleeding slowly but continuously there, raising considerably the value of even meager Russian assistance. Afghanistan also keeps the Americans distracted, and it is a source of discord between the United States and its European allies, and among the Europeans themselves. The notion that Russian elite really wants to help the United States in Afghanistan out of nostalgia for its own humiliation there, or because it empathizes with America’s suffering, is fantasy.
If Russia and the United States can transact only limited business in foreign policy areas, they will probably encounter even more limits to advancing their so-called civil society initiative. This is a U.S. policy that affirms non-intervention in Russian internal affairs while at the same time maintaining a dialogue with Russian civil society. If this sounds oxymoronic, that’s because it is.
The Americans have agreed to conduct their dialogue with Russian civil society under Kremlin control. The co-chairman of the working group organizing this dialogue is none other than the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov, whose other main responsibility is clearing the Russian political stage of all but a useful token opposition. Washington made another concession to the Kremlin by agreeing to conduct the dialogue in a “sharing best practices” mode. What can America learn from Russia about corruption, education reform, a free press, judicial independence or infrastructure renewal? Some Americans no doubt could learn from Russian best practices in areas of personal enrichment schemes or the subjugation of internal migrants, but civil society?
With no real strategic vector present in its relations with Russia, Washington inevitably ends up focusing on the techniques of exchange rather than the substance of it. As a result, the instruments come to eclipse the aims, the logistics the purpose. Since nothing can really happen as long as the Kremlin controls the action, the American officials and their supporters invariably do what they do best: They punt. In other words, they start advocating “win-win” situations and urge a “step-by-step approach” to cooperation that will transform the relationship. No one on the Russian side believes any of this. Putin, in his vintage belligerent way, accused the West and the United States of deceit and breaking promises. He reiterated that his Cold War declaration in Munich in 2007 “is relevant today.” With respect to the thaw in the relationship with America, Putin asked, “Where is this reset? So far we do not see it…”5
Engagement that merely imitates values instead of embodying them eventually turns into parody. The State Department’s report “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet” says, “The Obama Administration has looked for ways to support President Medvedev’s efforts at fighting corruption and deepening the rule of law.” But Medvedev thinks that corruption is a result of the fact that “society became freer.”6 According to this logic, corruption is any private transaction that officials loyal to Medvedev cannot monitor or rake off, and thus limiting freedom is the way to fight it. Do Americans really want to assist a project like that? Does President Obama believe his own words when he talks about Medvedev’s “vision of an innovative Russia?”7
There is one more domestic Russian outcome of the “reset” that the United States may come to regret. Only 13 percent of survey respondents consider Medvedev to be Russia’s real ruler; 72 percent believe that Putin still calls the big shots from behind the curtain.8 The irony is that the “reset” could help Putin return to the Kremlin as its formal master. Unlike Medvedev, Putin wins no matter what the outcome: If the West helps the Russian economy without changing its political system, he wins; if it doesn’t, he wins too.
The latter is the almost certain outcome. Some believe that Medvedev resembles Mikhail Gorbachev in the sense that both sought to reform the unreformable. But Gorbachev started to dehermetize the system, allowing political pluralism. Medvedev thinks he can modernize the Russian economy without modernizing its society or political system. Medvedev has already proved that he will not sacrifice the system to chase an impossible dream. Medvedev’s “innovation” mantra bears no relation to reality. Economic reform requires freeing up competition and guaranteeing property rights. A modern economy cannot arise amid tightening state control and the ongoing fusion of power and property. Similarly, Russia cannot be a high-tech innovator while it represses freedom.
When Medvedev fails, Putin will be waiting in the wings to play up the “enemy” image once again. Russian anti-Americanism can be stoked as easily as it can be quenched. When the authorities control national television and the print press, it does not take much effort to drive society back to a “besieged fortress” mentality. And when the promise of modernization evaporates, there will not be much else left than the Kremlin elite can use to justify its rule. So whether Putin turns that trick or someone else like him does so, that is the likely future of Russian domestic politics, and frustration with the reset in Russia only can push it in this direction. The real Russian reset will come when the Russian people demand it from responsible and responsive leadership.
As long as Russia’s system of personalized power remains in place, any “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations is doomed merely to facilitate the settlement of some of the two parties’ tactical interests, and then only temporarily. More than that it cannot be. Less than that it can be, however. This is another way of saying that, if set up wrong, it can do real harm.
Obama is carrying out his “reset” at a time when Russia is confronting a growing divide between its authorities and society. In a poll this summer, about 71 percent of respondents expressed the belief that they cannot defend themselves against harassment by state officials, and 82 percent thought that state officials do not obey the law. About 73 percent said that Russia has become a less just society.9 Washington is making nice with a regime that is losing favor with its own people and that has long since been rejected by the more forward-looking elements of society. It is, in a way, helping this regime domestically against those genuine Russian democrats who are America’s best friends.
This is not the first time that America has driven its relations with Russia into a perplexing maze of interests and values. Pursuing its current objectives requires Washington either to renounce a values-based approach or to pretend that it doesn’t have to. The dilemma is an old one. If Washington elevates a values-based approach in relations with Russia, it provokes tensions and makes a sustainable pragmatic relationship almost impossible. If it pursues a cold-blooded, transactional relationship, it can make the Kremlin friendly only when it sacrifices principles. But if it pursues the current “dual-track engagement”, then Washington will become a player in a form of make believe scripted by the Kremlin, and those dramaturges are vastly more experienced at various forms of imitation than Washington politicians could ever hope to be.
So if the “reset” is not helping to achieve a genuine transformation of some sort, then it risks legitimizing the Russian system of personalized power. The reset’s authors perhaps are aware of their policy’s limits and dangers; let’s not presume their naivety. But they may well take the view that a make-believe “reset” is preferable to a long-shot effort to forge a long-term strategy that would incentivize Russia’s liberalization. Be that as it may, having chosen the reset option they need to prepare for its unintended consequences. These could include not just rolling instability in the Eurasian area but also the demoralizing influence of Russia’s hybrid system on the Western world, including its business and even political elite.
From my vantage point, here in the shimmering golden shadow of Saint Basil’s, Washington’s optimal position, if it is not prepared to give serious thought to a strategic approach to Russia, is to pursue a policy of selective engagement that helps it avoid becoming a junior partner in the Kremlin’s Potemkin Village Construction Co. If President Obama needs to deal with the Russian regime for a variety of pragmatic purposes, then he needs to stop pretending that the Second Coming is at hand. The Administration would do liberal Russia a service if it would stop singing the praises of Medvedev’s modernization, and if it refrained from privileging “personal chemistry” in relations with Russian leaders.
It is possible, too, that if the Administration were to stop this pretending it might actually achieve greater success in advancing its own interests. For if the Americans won’t play the Kremlin’s make-believe games, then Medvedev, Putin and the rest might come to actual decisions more quickly than would otherwise be the case. At least then everyone could see things as they are, without the illusion of a reset button.
2Polling by the Levada Center, June 23, 2010.
3Speech at a Meeting with the Russian Ambassadors and the Permanent Representatives of International Organizations, June 12, 2010.
4Interview with Putin, Kommersant, August 30, 2010.
5Interview with Vladimir Putin, Kommersant, August 30, 2010.
6Interview with Der Spiegel, November 7, 2009.
7Meeting with Representatives of U.S. and Russian business, June 24, 2010.
8“The Landscape of Potential Presidential Elections”, Levada Center, August 2, 2010.
9Survey of the relationship between citizens and authorities, June 25, 2010.