20 years under Putin: a timeline

The year 2013 was not an easy one for the United States, and Russian President Vladimir Putin used the situation to strengthen his position both on the world stage and in the post-Soviet space. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argues that the Kremlin should not expect similar diplomatic victories in 2014.



The 2013 joint report of the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission trumpeted bilateral cooperation on a wide range of areas, including national security, the economy, people-to-people exchanges, agriculture, and science. These activities, largely begun in the heyday of the Reset during the Obama administration’s first term, now comprise 21 working groups drawing on more than 60 offices and agencies, as well as private businesses and non-governmental organizations in Washington and Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry described the groups’ cooperation as “successful.” Vladimir Putin said that the year 2013 demonstrated that Moscow and Washington “are able to work together to solve international problems.” In November, on the eightieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul stated that he believed the United States and Russia have more common interests than differences.

Despite these optimistic words and limited accomplishments, the last twelve months were marked by troubled, inconsistent, and sometimes contradictory relations between the United States and Russia. In the first months of 2013, the Reset, the Obama administration’s already-faltering initiative to broaden and deepen ties with Moscow, finally collapsed. The proximate cause was the Kremlin’s angry response to the Magnitsky Act, which was forced by the U.S. Congress on a reluctant White House and banned a select list of Russian officials guilty of human rights violations from traveling to the United States, as well as ordered that their assets be confiscated. But the real reasons for the Reset’s demise were much deeper. They­ lay in the two sides’ geopolitical differences over what the Reset was supposed to achieve, the exaggeration of its accomplishments (especially by Washington), and the Reset’s own internal contradictions.

The Obama administration hoped the Reset would succeed even as the Kremlin sought to roll back U.S. global influence and crack down on human rights at home. By the summer of 2013, differences over Syria, a deadlock over further reductions in strategic offensive arms and missile defense, and Putin’s authoritarian course had brought relations to an apparent dead end. These factors, along with Putin’s refusal to extradite fugitive government contractor Edward Snowden, led Obama to cancel a summit scheduled for September. By the end of August, when, to the Kremlin’s alarm, Obama announced the United States would use military force against Syria, a Russian ally, in response to a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb, the U.S.-Russia relationship had sunk to its lowest point since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

In September came an unexpected turnaround. As Obama hesitated to attack in the face of congressional opposition, Putin presented the U.S. president with a proposal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons during a short conversation on the margins of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Within two weeks the Assad regime had agreed to the proposal, and the United States and Russia negotiated a framework for Syria’s chemical disarmament, thereby postponing U.S. military action. Building upon that momentum, the United States and Russia intensified their efforts to convene a peace conference on Syria. Moscow also supported a U.S. initiative to Iran, which resulted in an interim accord on that country’s nuclear program.

The United States thus had some solid achievements in its dealings with Russia in 2013—among the most important of which was keeping the relationship on track despite recurring tensions. But it has not yet replaced the Reset with an approach to Russia that is more coherent and far-sighted. First, the U.S. focus in recent months on specific issues—an arms control treaty, increasing economic ties, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program—has lacked a strategic dimension that sufficiently takes into account the shift in the Eurasian balance of power away from the West, especially in the former Soviet periphery. Second, the United States’ approach to Russia was too Russia-centered, thereby encouraging the Kremlin’s delusion that Moscow is a global power with comparable status to Washington (and thus that the United States must accept Moscow’s claimed privileged status and Russia’s special place in the world). In reality, the idea that the United States and Russia have a central relationship is an archaic leftover of Cold War thinking. Finally, Russia’s advocacy of the primacy of global security interests is broadly consistent with the views of the “realists” who have manned key positions in the Obama administration. Worthy but less “hard” issues such as human rights promotion have received short shrift from the White House.

The Kremlin showed its clout, bolstered its previously crumbling position in the Middle East, and portrayed Obama as irresolute, in addition to helping avoid a war it also did not want.

These shortcomings were brought into stark relief in Washington’s dealings with Moscow over Syria and Ukraine. Moscow’s proposal for Syria provided an understandably welcome opportunity for Obama to postpone military action, which the president was reluctant to undertake. But it also gave the Kremlin the opportunity to show its clout as a great power, bolster its previously crumbling position in the Middle East, and portray Obama as irresolute, in addition to helping avoid a war it also did not want. Moreover, Washington’s need for Moscow’s cooperation on Syria now meant that it could not push Putin too far should a crisis arise elsewhere, lest Russia pull out of work on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program and organizing a peace conference, thereby forcing Obama to make good on his threat to use military force (a U.S. option that, theoretically at least, “was still on the table”).

That crisis came from Ukraine, where Kremlin bullying and financial assistance prompted Viktor Yanukovych to reject a proposed association agreement with the European Union, leading to large-scale demonstrations in the capital of Kiev. After first reacting cautiously, the Obama administration condemned the authorities’ resort to violence, urged calm, and stressed the need to respect the demonstrators’ right to peaceful assembly. But the United States made sure to protect its relationship with Russia by placing the primary blame for the unrest on Yanukovych, not Putin. In other ways, it was business as usual with Moscow. On December 10, at the height of the tensions in Kiev, U.S. officials held “productive” meetings in Moscow with their Russian counterparts and discussed arms control, economic relations, and people-to-people contacts. At bottom, U.S. officials seemed to prefer dealing with Russia, the great power, to dealing with Ukraine and implied that the events in the Maidan were a distraction. Some in Washington admitted they had “Ukraine fatigue,” arguing that the country was not yet ready for reform.

The United States remained accommodating toward Russia on other issues, moreover, despite Moscow’s push to strengthen its hold on Ukraine. After Russia threatened retaliation in December if Washington extended the so-called Magnitsky List, the Obama administration decided not to add new names. U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes implied that the reason for the decision was Moscow’s cooperation on Syria and Iran. The White House also assured the Kremlin there would be no boycott of the Sochi Olympics.

Moscow, therefore, finished the year with impressive foreign policy accomplishments. One Russian lawmaker argued that his country’s achievements have “turned Russia into a world leader and its president . . . into a politician who outran the president of the United States in 2013 in terms of influence on global affairs.” More fundamentally, Putin has made significant gains in the former Soviet space while Washington’s attention has largely been elsewhere. In 2013 he added an ideological overlay—that the West is a fading, decadent civilization and he is leading a Eurasian counterbalance—to what had been a naked drive to expand Russian political and economic influence. Despite Putin’s successes, however, he is playing a tricky game, since he also does not want to cut his country off from the West. Moscow realizes that in terms of military, political, and economic power, as well as social attractiveness, Russia is not the equal of the United States. The West also remains a safe haven for the Russian elite and its money. Chinese influence along Russia’s eastern and southern peripheries, in addition, is expanding.

Cooperation between the United States and Russia probably will continue on selected issues in 2014, including Syria, Iran, and the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Kremlin has already expressed hope that Obama will attend the G-8 summit it is scheduled to host in Sochi next June. But the atmosphere is likely to remain contentious and the relationship difficult to manage, and, encouraged by developments in Ukraine, Moscow will likely continue to challenge the United States’ influence in the former Soviet space. Although the Kremlin has said it hopes to expand collaboration with the United States, it is also looking elsewhere in the meantime. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has stated that Russia also will strengthen ties with the other BRIC nations (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa). There also is little reason to expect that Putin will tone down the regime’s anti-American rhetoric at home, which is a politically convenient rationale for his authoritarian rule. With terrorism still a threat and Russia’s economic problems mounting, it is thus uncertain whether the Kremlin will be able to continue its string of breathtaking diplomatic successes in the new year, let alone at U.S. expense.