With the unraveling of its “reset” with Moscow, the Obama administration is seeking new ways to engage the Russian leadership, relying on the time-tested issue of arms control. According to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Kremlin will demand a high price for bilateral reengagement.

 

 

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama sought to re-center the troubled relationship between the United States and Russia on a traditional theme: arms control. The White House, he announced, will “engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals and continue to lead the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands.” Indeed, this recalibration has been quietly under way since the beginning of the year. Earlier this month, at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joseph Biden reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the normalization of relations could begin with joint cooperation against nuclear proliferation. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the administration’s arms control chief, was in Moscow last week to discuss nuclear arms cuts. Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, is expected in Russia at the end of the month, reportedly to deliver a letter containing the White House arms proposals in more detail.

Kremlin officials, who hope to host a summit between Vladimir Putin and Obama by this fall, have shown interest in further cooperation on arms control and improving relations more generally; they openly blame former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for allowing relations to go sour in the recent past and effusively praise her successor John Kerry. They believe, however, that the “reset” failed to make bilateral ties that are “sustainable” on an ongoing basis—that is, that it failed to produce grounded terms that are more favorable to Russia. The Kremlin has also indicated that the price for better relations will be high: treatment of Russia as a global equal, agreement on the curtailment of U.S. missile defense plans, and noninterference in Russia’s increasingly unpredictable internal affairs.

The “reset” was undercut by the fact that Russia’s foreign policy is more and more a byproduct of its increasingly authoritarian domestic politics.

Although bilateral cooperation continues in a variety of areas, especially the transit of supplies to Afghanistan through Russia, the “reset” unraveled over the past two years in part because of “mini-crises” over specific issues such as Libya, Syria, and missile defense that caused mutual resentment and dissatisfaction. These differences, however, were linked more fundamentally to disparities of geopolitical interests and outlook. The Kremlin viewed the U.S. position on Libya and Syria as evidence that Washington was trying to reverse a global shift in power flowing away from the United States. In the United States, the Russian stance was viewed as a sign that Moscow wanted to protect its old authoritarian friends. The deadlock over missile defense seemed to Moscow proof that the United States is untrustworthy and looking to undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear force, the country’s main claim to being a great power. In Washington, Moscow’s concerns about ballistic missile defense appeared exaggerated and designed to pander to hardliners at home. What Russian officials resented as U.S. arrogance in expecting Moscow to automatically follow its international lead, Washington considered reflexive Russian anti-Americanism.

Above all, the “reset” was undercut by the fact that Russia’s foreign policy is more and more a byproduct of its increasingly authoritarian domestic politics. As Vladimir Putin railed against “external enemies” (especially the United States), rolled back civil liberties, and cracked down on domestic opposition—spurred to action by falsified parliamentary and presidential elections—the Kremlin took measures to limit U.S. interference in Russia’s internal affairs. These included preventing Russian civic organizations from receiving foreign funding and expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development. Putin’s strong opposition to Western efforts to intervene to stabilize the Syria crisis was thus motivated not only by concern for Bashar al-Assad or for the need to maintain a geopolitical toehold in the region, but also by opposition to endorsing a principle that might eventually be used as a precedent to unseat his own regime.

 

Antiamericanism and the fight against “foreign influence” on Russian politics became a leitmotif of Vladimir Putin's 2012 election campaign.

 

Nevertheless, as social scientist Mikhail Dmitriev has pointed out, Putin’s crackdown is unlikely to slow five trends undermining his system: a sharp increase in public demand for new leaders; the aging of Putin’s political brand; the failure of the regime’s nationalist rhetoric to mobilize the population; and the polarization of the electorate. A rising middle class, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg—a major result of the economic boom of the past decade—demands less corruption, more government transparency, and greater political participation. Even more dangerous for Putin, perhaps, are differences within the political elite that have resulted from his diminished popular support.

From the beginning, the so-called “reset theory” of the Obama administration was grounded on an ultimately unworkable assumption: that the United States could engage the Kremlin on issues of mutual interest even as it promoted Russia’s civil society (contradictions that were masked by excessive romanticism about the possibilities for a strategic partnership and the fact that the White House had convinced itself of the illusion that Dmitri Medvedev was both a genuine reformer and an autonomous political player).

The Obama administration—still hoping for cooperation—has apparently made the relationship with Russia less of a priority.

This approach resulted in some important achievements, such as a strategic arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, but the assumptions were almost impossible to reconcile once Russian society began to clamor for change. To its credit, the Obama administration (especially Secretary of State Clinton) became more critical of Putin’s human rights policies after he returned to the presidency and the crackdown on the Russian opposition began, but there were limits beyond which the White House would not go for fear of permanently alienating the Kremlin. For example, the Obama administration opposed the Magnitsky Act, a piece of legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in late 2012 that imposed visa and financial restrictions on Russian officials who violate human rights.

National Security Advisor Donilon told PBS on February 4 that the United States is prepared to maintain “great power relations” with Moscow and cooperate efficiently to settle Iran’s nuclear problem and normalize the situation in Afghanistan. Despite these remarks and President Obama’s call for a strategic arms agreement with Russia, some officials have told The New York Times that it may be time for a period of disengagement. Moreover, the Obama administration—not wishing to worsen the relationship and still hoping for cooperation—has apparently made the relationship with Russia less of a priority.

As Kremlin officials often point out, however—and as the White House is well aware—Russia remains a key player on a broad range of global issues, from Syria to Iran to North Korea. It will be difficult for Washington to either pull back too far from engagement or push back on human rights if it hopes to keep issues such as Obama’s latest arms control proposal high on the bilateral agenda.

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