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Analysis & Opinion
05.02.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A Year After The US-Russia Reset
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky

It has now been a year since the U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden announced a reset in United States-Russia relations, and six months since President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow. It is time to take stock of whether the much touted reset is working, or whether it is in danger of being gradually set back. Have both sides seized all the opportunities to transform the relationship, or is there more that could be done? Who are the stakeholders in both countries interested in having the relationship progress continuously?

The overall atmosphere of the relationship has improved dramatically since George Bush left office. The two presidents and their Cabinet officials seem to get along quite well. Hysterical outbursts are no longer in sight, and normal differences are managed quietly without polemics in the media.

A follow-up to the expired START Treaty is nearly complete, despite some serious differences on the subject of strategic nuclear reductions and missile defense, as well as verification measures. Obama’s decision to cancel plans for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe eliminated a major irritant and barrier in bilateral cooperation on strategic nuclear weapons and combating weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Cooperation on Afghanistan is moving forward, with Russia becoming a crucial part in what the United States calls “the northern supply corridor,” with American military cargo and personnel now moving through Russian airspace and railway network.

Russia has moved somewhat closer to the American view that a new set of UN mandated sanctions against Iran may be warranted if Iranian intransigence over its nuclear program continues. However, Moscow is yet to commit itself to a pro-sanctions position.

U.S.-Russian competition in the former Soviet space did not heat up during the year, despite a presidential election in Ukraine, which is likely to remove Viktor Yushchenko, a major provocateur, from power. The Obama administration wisely took a low key approach to the area to maintain positive momentum with Russia.

On the European security front, Washington was cool to two Russian strategic initiatives – Dmitry Medvedev’s Pan-European Security Treaty and Sergey Lavrov’s proposal for a new Russia-NATO relationship. The Obama administration views both of these suspiciously as attempts to undermine NATO.

The Medvedev-Obama bilateral commission set up to create strategic stakeholders in the relationship has been off to a slow start. Some of the 13 working groups have begun their work, including the infamous Surkov-McFaul working group on civil society, while others are not yet operational.

Business cooperation is still miniscule compared to other key trade relationships.

Talks on Russia’s WTO accession are languishing, after Russia decided to form a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, while a new brawl over the Russian ban on U.S. poultry imports makes it difficult for the Obama administration to push for permanent normal trade relations and remove Russia from the Jackson – Vanik amendment.

Obama has lost his filibuster-proof Senate majority, making U.S. Congressional intervention in the U.S.-Russia relationship much more disruptive.

So, is the reset working? Have both sides seized all the opportunities to transform the relationship, or is there more that could be done? Who are the stakeholders in both countries interested in having the relationship progress continuously?

Are the bilateral instruments, like the Medvedev-Obama Commission, set up to manage the daily business of the reset, functioning well? Do they need constant pushing from the top, or can they operate pretty much autonomously? Are we not making too much noise over the Surkov – McFaul working group on civil society? How important is it to the relationship?

Will Obama continue to keep a low profile in the post-Soviet space? And how much U.S. presence and activity there is Medvedev likely to tolerate?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's unfortunate "reset" metaphor may have created unrealistic hopes and expectations for improved U.S.-Russian relations on both sides. President Barack Obama is a strong believer in the potential value of engagement.

Nonetheless, increased communications are no guarantee of achieving positive results, other than possibly reducing the likelihood of tensions due to miscalculation. As long as there are genuine differences between the United States and Russia, there is very little possibility of making significant, as opposed to symbolic, breakthroughs in critical policy areas.

Unrealized hope can be like unrequited love: it can give rise to bitterness and hostility. Undoubtedly, after the U.S. presidential election there was a different political party in power, and a change in personnel and policy in the White House and the U.S. government was never in doubt. It would be a mistake, however, to presume that a mirror image existed in Moscow, where power is shared between the Kremlin and the White House – a fact that the Obama administration better appreciates today.

It seems that Obama underestimated the depth and the consequences of the problems that he inherited from Bush. The economic situation has taken a toll on the young president's agenda and popularity (and consequently his effectiveness). Recent Republican victories in the Senate contest in Massachusetts and the election of Russian governors in New Jersey and Virginia cannot be ignored. Obama's increased political weakness has made the Republican Party more difficult to deal with, and almost certainly made him more reluctant to make what might be viewed as foreign policy concessions that can be interpreted as a sign of U.S. weakness.

Irrespective of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's declarations, such as establishing the rule of law in the country and developing a post-Cold War foreign policy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the ruling Russian economic and political elite seem intent on undermining U.S. foreign objectives (according to the Financial Times, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson said that "Russia tried to foment" the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crises by encouraging China not to buy their bonds).

The Russian leadership seems to overestimate the importance of its role with respect to the so-called "Northern corridor" to NATO's efforts in Afghanistan. The situation today is not the same as it was at the beginning of the post September 11 conflict. Presently, it is a matter of winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghani people, not driving the Taliban from power through brute military force.

Granted, U.S. policy toward Ukraine has been unsuccessful and unrealistic. In general, Washington better appreciates the limits of its strengths or what it can expect from its allies. Still, no "working group" activities will result in the United States abandoning its concerns about the state of human rights/rule of law in Russia, the cyber-attacks on Estonia and the London financial district that apparently emanated from Russia (as well as their implications). The Balts, Czechs, and the Poles will remind the Obama administration not to respond in a positive manner to any Russian initiatives to change the political/military arrangements in Europe.

It is unrealistic to expect a large number of U.S. corporations to see major benefits from greater economic activity in Russia – the Russian consumer market is not prosperous and legal protections are inadequate. The international business community will not alter its views of the level of corruption in Russia, if Transparency International were to rate Russia as the 120th most corrupt country in the world instead of 146.

At present, it is unclear whether Obama and Medvedev can deliver on any promises they make to each other. Frankly, I don't recall seeing any pinball machines in Moscow that had reset buttons.

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

Undoubtedly, the overall atmosphere in U.S. – Russian relations has improved dramatically after George Bush left the White House. However, the list of actual achievements is pretty modest indeed. The expired START treaty has not been renegotiated yet, and even if it is done the required Senate ratification is not guaranteed at all. Senators worry that the Obama administration is giving away the store, and last December, 41 of them sent a letter to the White House saying that they would oppose the new treaty if they feel that the United States is slowing its nuclear modernization. Jon Kyl, one of the most influential Republican senators, went as far as to refer to the Obama administration negotiations as "arms control malpractice."

Obama did cancel plans for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe, but to sweeten the bitter pill for Warsaw he will be installing Patriot missiles next to the Russian border. Obviously, he needed a symbolic gesture of sorts to calm down Polish anti-Russia hawks and their Washington friends. However, if this gesture is strictly symbolic, a more unsuitable place and time for it would be hard to find. Whereas previously Russia was told that it had nothing to worry about, as the sole purpose of the system was the destruction of Iranian or North Korean missiles, the Patriots are certainly intended to repulse a potential missile attack by Russia. One can hardly add this project to the positive reset’s balance sheet.

Cooperation on Afghanistan is doing better, but even here there is some grumbling in Congress and the media that a Northern Supply Corridor for U.S. and NATO military cargo and personnel going through Russian airspace and railway network is not fully operational. According to certain sources, there have been just a few test flights into Afghanistan under the agreement so far, although the Pentagon insists that all needed supplies are reaching coalition troops and that Russia has never denied a request for a transit flight.

The biggest issue is Iran, of course, and here Russia’s position is getting closer to those of the Americans and Europeans, which is very important.

Adding to the positive balance is lack of evidence of U.S. and Russian meddling in Ukrainian elections, as well as termination of active U.S. lobbying, at least publicly, against North and South Streams as the new supply routes for Russian gas to Europe.

On the negative side, Washington’s out of hand rejection of Russia’s repeated appeals for a new Pan-European Security Treaty makes one wonder about the real reasons behind such a policy. Key European countries such as France, Germany and Italy apparently do not mind discussing the details of the Russian proposals. Isn’t Western security better served when Russia is a part of the system, instead of being humiliated and pushed around looking for other and perhaps unfriendly partners?

One reason that the reset has not produced too many results is the obvious lack of new ideas, which were supposed to be generated by the numerous Medvedev-Obama bilateral commissions. So far we have not heard much about their activities or, most importantly, results, except perhaps on cultural cooperation, headed by Mikhail Shvydkoi and U.S. Undersecretary of State Judith McHale and on Civil Society headed by Vladislav Surkov and Michael McFaul.

This last commission became the subject of controversy even before it was able to proceed with business, as on the eve of its first meeting 71 members of Congress demanded the dismissal of Surkov. One would have thought that having one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin worry about civil society is a positive sign, but apparently members of Congress know better. Frankly, knowing firsthand how these letters are produced, I am sure that most of the signatures have been placed by staffers without even telling their bosses. This, however, is little consolation, since such futile moves certainly do not help the reset. In any event, we should push these commissions both from the top, bottom, and all sides to get their act together and do a better job.

All those who criticize Obama for trying to reset U.S. – Russian relations should be asked to come up with a better alternative. There is no doubt that with its current huge budget deficit and astronomical national debt, America will be better served by selecting a less confrontational foreign policy.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It is highly indicative of the breakdown in communications between the United States and Russia during the preceding Washington administration that a simple re-establishment of dialogue and the symbolic use of a toy red button, mislabeled in Russian, were enough to induce high expectations and even near-euphoria among some of the cognoscenti.

Let us remember: “reset” does not mean “improve.” “Reset” means just that: start over. Maybe to arrive eventually to the same faulty state that existed before the “button was pushed.”

It is natural that in contrast to a very obvious stone wall from Washington under president Bush, even a simple resumption of bilateral discussions was received as a major advance, which it was indeed. So the challenge for results, one year later, is very appropriate.

One of the causes of the paucity of results to date is surely due to the logistics of assembling the Clinton-Lavrov talking forum. Diplomacy by committee. Reminds one of the joke “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” It may take more months of gathering pundits and grand-poobahs to get these talks underway, but on the other hand, why should one expect anything of major import out of such talkfests? Remember the camel…

There is an opinion, though, that the reason the “reset” is apparently not working as expected is due to profound, structural issues. Consider your personal computer; when it stops working in the middle of a routine task, a standard corrective technique is to press the… reset button. And so it is done. The computer restarts and operates – until it jams up again doing the same task as before. The root cause is not cleared by a reset operation – the problem is located deeper, it needs analysis and true repair.

There may be validity in the structural explanation of the issue with the U.S.-Russian “reset.” Consider the participants. On the Russian side one sees policy leaders and experts on the United States. Their knowledge of America may have been acquired some time ago, but the United States has not changed structurally; it has evolved, as every living organization does, but it is fundamentally the same as 25 years ago. Meanwhile, on the American side, the expertise and leadership is mostly composed of Sovietologists (McFaul is a shining example) – people whose object of study no longer exists in geopolitical space. Russia has changed radically in the past quarter of a century – and American specialists are applying the wrong knowledge to the case. To quote a very true and deathless proverb: “they do not know what they do not know.”

Moreover, perhaps the persistence of Cold War attitudes toward Russia among much of the American expert community is due to a certain intellectual inertia: “we studied the Soviet Union; we have formulas and thought patterns designed for the Soviet Union, we do not want to innovate – so let’s pretend modern Russia is a kind of a Soviet Union.” One is not going to get much of a productive “reset” this way.

The success of vice president Biden’s “reset” concept depends on a profound re-engineering of American understanding of modern Russia. There is little evidence of such a process on the policy-making level in Washington.
There is another risk for the relationship. The world is now multi-polar. There is an entire global network of very important relationships. If the “reset” does not result in genuine renewal of the relationship between America and Russia, other relationships will begin to take greater precedence. This would be indeed regrettable.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Contrary to Frolov's argument, I'd maintain that the reset has precious little to show for it, and the fault lies on the Russian side. While this is not a popular view among the bien-pensants of the West who argue that the West must run after Moscow and offer it inducements to participate in processes that benefit Russia, it is the truth. Polemics have not stopped on Moscow's part as any attentive reader of the daily Russian press would easily know. One only needs to read Putin, Lavrov, Karaganov, and many others to see this.

Secondly, the practical results of cooperation are disappointing. Just one flight has gone through Russian airspace to Afghanistan exclusively due to Russian bureaucratic obstruction. The arms control treaty has been held up largely because of Putin's desire to show who is the boss and the beating of a long-dead horse on missile defense.
NATO-Russian collaboration is an empty sham despite the signing of a new agreement. The cooperation is at the lowest level and NATO staffers know that the problem here is not NATO, but Russia's refusal to embrace genuine cooperation.

On the working group side, the McFaul-Surkov commission, which Frolov calls “infamous” for a reason, has met to discuss the adoptions of Russian children. While this is a useful topic, at a time when the Gulag has been restored (i.e. the incarceration of political prisoners has resumed, and journalists are regularly threatened, if not killed, Khodorkovsky sits awaiting trial on trumped up charges and Putin has already deemed himself prosecutor, judge and jury), talk about adoption problems seems to be besides the point.

Russia is a party to international treaties and accords on civil and human rights, the UN Treaty on Human rights, the Helsinki Accords, etc., and there is nothing incompatible with a solid diplomatic dialogue in insisting publicly and privately that Moscow be held to its signature on these treaties, especially as it prattles on about international law.
On Iran, Moscow has refused to sell it the S300 and has dropped hints of its unhappiness about Iran's intransigence, but it is more likely hiding behind China's newly found assertiveness than converting to Washington's viewpoint, and here again Putin clearly is an obstacle, along with Lavrov.

The sad fact is that we have little to show for the reset and, if anything, it has led us to tamp down our well-deserved outrage about the ongoing anti-democratic trends in Russia which have grown in 2009, Medvedev's rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

The reason for this failure has little to do with U.S. or Western policy. In plain fact Moscow does not want genuine cooperation with the West except for incidental tactical cooperation. What it does crave is a free hand in its sphere of influence, something that is unacceptable to both Europe and the United States, not to mention the people and governments living there. Worse yet, Moscow can no longer sustain that ambition and the pursuit of it only impoverishes the Russian people who deserve something better from their government than what they have historically gotten.
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