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Analysis & Opinion
12.08.11 Does The United States - Russia “Reset” Need An Upgrade?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Vladimir Belaeff, Edward Lozansky

Having repaired U.S.-Russian relations after their collapse in the wake of the Russia-Georgian war of August 2008, the much ballyhooed “reset,” launched by President Barack Obama upon taking office in 2009 and later embraced by President Dmitry Medvedev, is losing steam, and according to many seasoned observers of U.S.-Russian relations, could be all but over. Does the “reset” need an upgrade? Could Russia and the United States forge a common strategic purpose in Eurasia? If strategic cooperation in managing the challenges along Russia’s periphery was to prove impossible, what other strategic purpose could provide a foundation and a management framework for this rocky relationship?

As Donald Jensen, a former senior diplomat at the American Embassy in Moscow and a prominent United States-Russia analyst wrote for the Voice of America Russian Service, recent developments and statements by both sides raise questions about the durability of the improved relationship. “Significant early achievements, most notably a START nuclear treaty, logistical cooperation in support of the campaign in Afghanistan, and joint action in the United Nations to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, were hallmarks of the initial stages of the reset. The routine diplomatic work between the two sides is today much more professional than under George W. Bush. But as the months have passed, the rewards have become more modest and less frequent. A child adoption agreement and the promise of fewer visa restrictions for travel between the countries, the ‘reset’s’ accomplishments this summer, pale next to the earlier expectations of a much broader range of joint work,” writes Jensen.

Last week, Russia blocked drafting a UNSC resolution denouncing President Bashar al-Assad regime’s repression of the protest movement in Syria. Russia agreed to a toothless “presidential statement” and threatened to outright veto any UN action that would impose sanctions, writes Jensen.

The missile defense talks have stalled over U.S. opposition to Russia’s demands for legally binding guarantees and technical limitations on U.S. AMB systems to be deployed in Europe and on naval platforms that would preclude their use against Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles. A visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s NATO Envoy Dmitry Rogozin to the United States in July failed to break the deadlock. Ambassador Rogozin threatened Washington with Russian withdrawal from the recently enacted new START treaty if Moscow’s concerns on missile defense aren’t met.

The U.S. Congress enraged Moscow by considering a bill that would deny visas and freeze the assets of Russian officials implicated in the death of Sergey Magnitsky. Forced to make good on its claimed commitment to the promotion of human rights, the White House sought to preempt the bill by imposing a more restricted blacklist, says Jensen.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev responded to this by ordering the imposition of similar restrictions on travel to Russia on U.S. officials, while threatening to retaliate against a wide range of U.S. interests by blocking cooperation on issues sensitive to the U.S. side. The Kremlin even dispatched its First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov (himself a likely target of the Congressional visa-ban) to Washington last week to resolve the growing tensions over travel restrictions.

The “reset” appears to be lacking an overall strategic objective. As Tom Graham, a former senior director for Russia in the Bush White House and now managing director at Kissinger & Associates wrote in a recent paper, the ‘reset’ has no answer to “what the two countries should aspire to now so as to foreclose a return to dangerous geopolitical rivalry and hold open the promise of mutually advantageous strategic partnership.”

While strains are “standard fare in any bilateral relationship,” writes Graham, “what makes U.S.-Russian relations more precarious, however, is the absence of strong constituencies and public support for improved relations that can help blunt the impact of conflicts and provide a framework in which they can be managed.”

Graham debunks the myth that the growth in trade and investment would create a large business constituency in both countries for a strategic relationship. “U.S. trade with Russia amounts to roughly one percent of overall U.S. trade, and U.S. investment in Russia pales in comparison to U.S. investment in Europe, Japan, China, and a number of other countries. An exponential growth in trade and investment that could turn the business community into an influential constituency for better relations is not on the horizon. The hard truth is that U.S. trade with Russia is small not simply because of existing barriers but, more importantly, because of a fundamental lack of complementarities between the two economies. Neither country produces much that the other wants. As for investment, Russia is only one, and far from the most attractive, of many destinations in emerging markets.”

Neither would cooperation on Afghanistan or joint work on missiles defense provide the strategic rationale for a burgeoning U.S.-Russian relationship, warns Graham. “The Russians are supporting the Northern Distribution Network in the hope that the United States will remain engaged in a conflict from that Americans increasingly want to withdraw from. Is this an achievement?” he asks. “What could be a more powerful symbol of the benefits of a U.S.-Russian partnership than cooperation in building a system designed to defend both Americans and Russians from common enemies? But a genuinely joint system always lay in the realm of fantasy. No American administration would ever consider making the defense of the United States even marginally dependent on a Russia that is still more a rival than a partner. And lesser forms of cooperation or coordination of efforts – the sharing of early warning data, for example – would do little to excite the American public, even if the Russians were interested, which they are not.”

Graham argues that a common strategic purpose, uniting Russia and the United States, remains to be discovered, and suggests searching for it in managing the strategic challenges both nations face along Russia’s periphery – “a rising China, with an insatiable appetite for natural resources and an increasingly assertive foreign policy… radical Islamic fundamentalism penetrating the fragile states of both the Caucasus and Central/South Asia, promoting instability and fostering terrorism that threaten both the United States and Russia. Strategic disarray in Europe creates tension in Eastern Europe and detracts American, Russian, and European efforts from the more serious threats that emanate from beyond Europe,” Graham writes.

“Despite the warming of relations, the main strategic challenges are yet to be addressed vigorously and honestly in official channels. The two countries do not discuss China as a common problem, in part because they do not want to risk their respective relations with a rising power. The two countries do not discuss the former Soviet space as a common strategic challenge in part because each is keenly aware of the past acute competition there. Ironically, however, avoiding these critical, potentially divisive issues helped create the conditions for the ‘reset’s’ success, while now only confronting them and transforming them into a common strategic purpose offers a positive path forward beyond the reset,” Graham concludes.

Does the “reset” need an upgrade? Could Russia and the United States forge a common strategic purpose in Eurasia, as Graham suggests? Or is this a utopian proposition? If strategic cooperation in managing the challenges along Russia’s periphery was to prove impossible, what other strategic purpose could provide a foundation and a management framework for this rocky relationship?

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada

Because I was not very impressed with Obama in the first place, I expected little from the “reset,” and little there has been. The problem with any initiative from the Obama Administration needs to be put brutally: is there any follow-up after the speech?

The “reset” did change the rhetoric, although it has seen no real trials so far. The nuclear agreement was made. But Russians would complain that they still see geriatric obsolescence, like Captive Nations and Jackson-Vanik, assurances on WTO admission that come and go, periodic resolutions on “the Russian occupation” of Georgia and moralistic finger-wagging.

They would ask “where’s the beef?” I leave it to the Americans to make their own list of Russian sins (Anna Chapman, Magnitsky, any day’s indictment from the Washington Post or Ariel Cohen).

But the bottom line is that the United States-Soviet Union relationship was much more important to the two – and to the rest of us – than the United States-Russia relationship is. The important thing is that each stop thinking of the other as the Main Enemy; each must rid itself of superseded habits of thought.

Getting there will take some time: the United States is still the most important country on the planet and Moscow obsesses over it (perhaps too much: Mikheil Saakashvili is not Washington’s creation and neither was Viktor Yushchenko). From Washington’s perspective, Russia does not turn up very often in the daily White House crisis briefings and is only important to the still vocal Russia-the-eternal-enemy faction.

What interests do they have in common? Not very many. They share a common enemy in jihadism, although the anti-Russia lobby still hasn’t figured that out. Nuclear weapons are a factor, but less and less important. There are trade interests – although not big. Occasionally Russia’s influence in some forlorn place is potentially significant. They are not large on either’s radar.

What opposing interests do they have? Again, not many. For years the anti-Russia lobby has warned us that Moscow wants to take over Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, or whatever, but it still hasn’t happened. And, if Moscow truly had some existential desire to conquer Georgia, the anti-Russia lobby still hasn’t explained what stopped it three years ago: the Russia that they fantasize about would have gone to Tbilisi, seized Saakashvili and still be there.

Moscow is nervously concerned about the ultimate use of U.S. missiles in Europe. What Moscow actually wants is a quiet life so that it can modernize itself. But it doesn’t want to be played for a sucker, as it believes it was in the 1990s. This is the root of the missile problem: Moscow does not trust Washington’s mere word after, to take one example, NATO’s expansion.

There is no advantage in closing off every entrance, rejecting every overture, suspecting everything and pretending that Russia is still the Soviet Union and gradually working to turn Russia into a real enemy.

But, what frightens me about U.S.-Russian relations is that many on the right side of the U.S. political spectrum still reflexively believe that Russia is the Eternal Enemy and, the way things are going, as well as the House of Representatives, they will soon control the Senate and the presidency.

But, what keeps me (faintly) optimistic is that the successors to the Obama Administration will have bigger, and more urgent, problems than Russia to deal with.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

“Reset” means “return to initial conditions” or “return to a null state.” The word “reset” does not mean “improve.” And “perezagruzka” is not an accurate Russian equivalent of the English word “reset.”

It seems that many Russians, actually lacking the necessary deep knowledge of the American English language and its cultural context, formed an erroneous understanding of the electoral sound-bite from Joe Biden’s campaign for the presidential nomination – they interpreted “reset” of relations as an improvement, when in reality what was offered was a return to a neutral, null state.

It is true that relative to the markedly negative dead end in U.S.-Russian dialogue during the George W. Bush years, even a return to a neutral (“null”) level was a significant relative advance. But to imagine that the “reset” in relations would be a significant positive improvement beyond the neural state is a bit of wishful thinking.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to propose that an upgrade in relations should be not an enhancement of the “reset,” but its replacement – a natural progression from a neutral state in relations to a truly collaborative new relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation.

What are the obstacles obviously blocking the next step in relations – from neutrality to collaboration?

In the United States one obstacle are the adamant conservative policy makers. Their conservatism is not necessarily a priori anti-Russian (although some examples of this do exist). This conservatism is above all pro-American (naturally and honourably), but it is fixated on a world long gone: a pre-Vietnam War, even pre-JFK America. In this lost world, collaboration with “Russia” (read the Soviet Union) is not really necessary for American predominance; what is used is a demonstrable ability to exercise the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, the fresh memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the near-use of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Korean theatre.

To this kind of conservative American thinking, Russia remains not just a rival, but a genuine enemy. One only needs to read again the Congressional debate on the ratification of START III to see evidence of the intensity and power of this position.

As is noted in the paper cited by Frolov, Russia is not important to the United States in a sufficiently large ensemble of areas. The MAD calculation persists (but is gradually being undermined by American ABM initiatives in Eastern Europe), and that is probably the only enduring item of importance.

In Russia, an obstacle is emerging caused by growing disillusionment and frustration at the observed lack of progress in Russo-American relations. There is an opinion that these emotions are due to earlier Russian overestimates of the “reset.” The dreamed grand results did not materialize – therefore the “reset” is considered a dud.

Will the situation improve in the future? Not necessarily. Both the United States and Russia have great internal challenges to overcome and are already dedicating much energy in that direction. The world is truly multi-polar now, and America is only commencing the wrenching process of adapting to the “new normal.” The scale of Russia’s problems is well reflected in the news that 200,000 former members of the “militsiya” (20 percent of the total headcount) were found to be unqualified to join the new Russian professional police force. To either country, the quality of the relationship with the opposite number may not be as important as before.

In these circumstances, a U.S.-Russian relationship based on a courteous but chilly “null state,” with some “single point” collaborative links (the International Space Station, nuclear non-proliferation, anti-narcotics policing) may be the best that one should expect for the foreseeable future.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC

Unfortunately, even the most enthusiastic supporters of Obama’s “reset” policy now admit that it is losing steam. This policy scored a few important and undeniable achievements, but the list was pretty short and, most regrettably, no new, significant breakthroughs are visible or expected on the horizon.

Considering the mood on Capitol Hill, where less than a dozen members out of 535 can be expected to say anything good or at least neutral about Russia, any progress in the development of a mutually advantageous strategic partnership envisioned by the “reset” can hardly be hoped for.

While White House statements on Russia are, as often as not, businesslike and pragmatic, the language at Congressional hearings or resolutions on Russia is getting strikingly similar to that of the Soviet or George W. Bush’s times. Why that is so remains something of a mystery, seeing that Russia, with all its shortcomings, is still very supportive of America in many ways, most importantly on Afghanistan or Iran.

One explanation could be the desire of the Republicans to deny any foreign policy achievements to Obama. Whatever his political enemies may say, the “reset” is definitely one of his very few successes. On the other hand, the rhetoric of the Democrats may not be as harsh as that of the Republicans, but it is still far from that used in talking to real or potential partners.

Besides, even the administration’s nice rhetoric is not often matched with real deeds. The proposals for a joint European security architecture or missile defence presented by Moscow are rejected out of hand, while the so-called pipeline policy is not losing momentum at all.

What kind of partnership are we talking about, when the State Department has a special high-level position called Envoy for Eurasian Energy, whose job is to ensure that oil and gas flows from the post-Soviet space reach their final destination in Europe or elsewhere bypassing Russia, thus diminishing this country's most important budget revenue? Europe is under constant pressure from Washington to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies, the pretext being that it is absolutely necessary to curb Russia’s political influence. Every unbiased observer agrees that the brief interruptions of Russian gas flows to Europe were caused by Ukraine or Belarus’ refusal to pay the market price as stipulated by signed and sealed commercial contracts. Still, when Russia proposed to avoid such crises in the future by building the North or South Stream gas pipelines, some “impartial” politicians called it a return of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. What would be the U.S. reaction if the Kremlin appointed a high-level official whose job would be going around the world and lobbying for the reduction of the import of U.S. cars or any other best-selling product in order to bring down America’s revenues?

The promotion of democracy and human rights in Russia is not as straightforward as it is presented by the U.S. side, either. Granted, Russia’s record on these matters is far from perfect. However, criticism coming from Washington is losing any credibility when countries with much less impressive records on the same issues are getting an easy passing grade – as long as they cooperate on the above-mentioned pipeline policy.

I do not recall recent hearings on Capitol Hill or strong condemnation from the White House on democracy and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or – inconceivably – Georgia. Are we to assume that these countries are doing exceptionally well – or are they exempt from criticism because of their importance for diminishing Russia’s clout in the post-Soviet space?

While the debate on the “reset” continues, a dangerous economic and financial tsunami is rising. Whatever the future holds in store, America can no longer claim total, unchallenged supremacy in the world. It therefore needs friends and partners more than ever before to weather the new global upheavals.

Looking around, I do not see a stronger or richer country than Russia that may qualify for a mutually beneficial partnership with America. For this reason, if for no other, we had better search for new ideas to sustain and expand the “reset” – instead of burying it.
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