20 years under Putin: a timeline

In the view of the new complications of the U.S.-Russia relationship Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, reviews the most recent book The Limits of Partership by Angela Stent, who served as an advisor on Russia to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.



The Limits of Partnership: U.S.–Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century. By Angela E. Stent. Princeton University Press; 355 pages; $35

Life itself, as the Soviets used to say, dictated the demise of the Obama administration’s famous reset of relations with Russia. Viewed by some officials early in the president’s first term as the first step toward an eventual strategic partnership, the policy was a casualty of several factors that ensured its life would never be long: different ways of looking at the world, markedly different expectations of what the Reset was supposed to achieve, a lack of deep economic ties that could cushion the inevitable disagreements, the intrusion of unexpected international crises, and a legacy of mistrust inherited from the Cold War.

Five years after the beginning of the Reset, relations between the United States and Russia are little better than they were at the end of the Bush administration. Americans’ opinions of Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin, according to a recent Gallup poll, are lower than they have been in the last 20 years. These results followed a Gallup poll from last September that showed that for the first time in 15 years, more Americans viewed Russia as an unfriendly or enemy nation than as an ally or friend.

To its still numerous supporters, the Reset produced substantial achievements: a new strategic arms treaty; Russian assistance with the war in Afghanistan; cooperation on terrorism, nonproliferation, and Iran; and Moscow’s membership in the World Trade Organization. Moreover, ties were at a post–Cold War low in 2008, supporters argue, and by the end of the Bush administration it was imperative that relations be put on a more constructive track. But to its critics, the Reset was more hype than achievement. Its successes mostly included what Moscow would have done anyway, since those moves were in Russia’s interests as well. At worst, the Reset, according to its opponents, damaged U.S. security interests, neglected human rights concerns, and conveyed to the world (not just Vladimir Putin) that the United States was weak and irresolute. Relations between the United States and Russia were indeed at a low point in 2008, opponents argue, and with good reason: Russia had just invaded neighboring Georgia, a move that warranted a strong Western response. Whatever the merits of specific Reset accomplishments, U.S. influence in the former Soviet space in general is markedly less than it was in 2008, while Russia’s influence has increased.

In her magisterial new book The Limits of Partnership: U.S.–Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, Angela Stent performs a great service by showing that the end of the Obama Reset is only one part of a much broader pattern that goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. “Why,” she asks, “has it been so difficult to develop a productive and more predictable post-Cold War U.S.-Russia partnership?” (p. xi). Since the end of the Cold War, she writes, there have been “not one, but four resets.” Every American president has come into office with high hopes for an improved relationship with his counterpart in the Kremlin. Every president has left office bitterly disappointed.

Stent narrates the history of each relationship with clarity and balance and finds a common set of factors that explain why each one has gone off the rails: the legacy of the Cold War; the fact that Russia’s importance to the United States inevitably changed after the Soviet Union’s collapse, while many Russians found it hard to accept that Washington no longer viewed their country as its major rival; the occasional internal contradictions of U.S. approaches to Russia; and the significant divergence in the two countries’ value systems. She examines the six sets of major issues the sides sought to manage and finds substantial continuity in the bilateral policy agenda.

“Three U.S presidents have tried to find the golden key that would unlock the door to a qualitatively better U.S.-Russian relationship since the Soviet collapse,” Stent concludes. “So far no one has found the key.”

The first President Bush, coping with the end of the Soviet Union, proposed a modest reset. The U.S. president reacted cautiously to the collapse and focused on securing Soviet weapons of mass destruction. Bush was criticized, however—including by then–presidential candidate Bill Clinton—for not doing enough to help post-Communist Russia get back on its feet economically. This cautious approach also shaped the administration’s approach to democracy promotion, ultimately producing little American commitment to reshaping Russian society. This caution, I would add, also came from a misreading of what happened in August 1991. U.S. policymakers mistakenly assumed that those events had been an unalloyed democratic breakthrough. In fact, the August victors, as soon became apparent, were a coalition of forces—made up of not only pro-Western democrats but also radical Russian nationalists, mid-level Soviet bureaucrats, businessmen, and others—united by little other than a desire see to see the coup leaders from the GKChP (State Committee for the State of Emergency) defeated.

The “Bill and Boris Show”—the partnership between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin to transform Russia into a free market democracy (at least from Washington’s point of view)—began promisingly. Stent perceptively discusses the two leaders’ accomplishments, including initial Russian cooperation in the Balkans, the neutralization of Russian opposition to NATO, and the introduction of Russia into the G-7. But while U.S. assistance helped revive Russia, Stent correctly points out that by the end of the Clinton presidency, the relationship was at best selective: “cooperation and competition coexisted, albeit in fluctuating proportions” (p. 13).

The Clinton approach to Russia was marred—more, I would stress, than Stent does—by two fatal flaws. First, Washington oversimplified Russian domestic developments. U.S. officials tended to divide the Russian body politic into reformers, grouped around Team Yeltsin, and anti-reformers, who threatened to drag the country back into Communism. While these U.S. assumptions were to some extent true, the United States came late to the realization that the new Russia was evolving in ways not to its liking and perhaps beyond its control (indeed, U.S. policy may have accelerated these trends). Second, as Yegor Gaidar’s economic reforms backed by Yeltsin became more politically untenable, the United States began to identify the reforms with Yeltsin personally, with results that haunt the U.S.–Russia relationship even today. Believing it had no choice, Washington supported Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 and his reelection three years later. But in the end, despite U.S. backing, even Yeltsin came to resent the lack of American deference to Russian national interests. Washington’s controversial role in Russia’s tumultuous domestic developments in those years is a bogey the Kremlin uses to mobilize its political base even today.

Stent reminds us that the third U.S.–Russian reset was initiated not by the United States but by Vladimir Putin, who suggested that the two countries work together in an antiterrorist partnership after the 9/11 attacks. Putin may well have had in mind several goals in offering to help the George W. Bush administration, such as upgrading Russia’s significance for Washington; equating Moscow’s struggle against Islamist militants in the North Caucasus with the American struggle against al-Qaeda; and winning greater understanding for Russian vital interests, especially recognition of the former Soviet space as a key area of Russian influence. As it had during the Clinton-Yeltsin era, the initial promise went sour. The Kremlin opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s decision to exit the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and further NATO expansion, and saw the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia both as the product of behind-the-scenes work by Washington and as threats to the Putin regime. The Bush administration, meanwhile, was alarmed by the Kremlin’s authoritarian course at home. Differences over missile defense and Iran were further irritants.

Stent’s volume is sympathetic to the Obama Reset—much more than I would be—but her discussion of its rise and fall is fair and balanced. Especially noteworthy is her account of the Obama administration’s misguided attempt to deal with the Putin/Medvedev tandem leadership. “Obama, like other Western leaders,” she writes, “decided from the beginning to take Medvedev at his word and act as if he was the de facto as well as the de jure leader of Russia, who wanted to make Russia a more modern society based on the rule of law” (p. 216). This was a serious miscalculation. The extent to which Medvedev was ever so autonomous an actor as president—and the extent to which he merited the attention the White House gave him—is doubtful. The Obama administration’s cultivation of him as a possible “liberal” alternative to Putin, moreover, led the White House to exaggerate the possibilities for reform in the system and likely strained relations with Putin.

After Putin’s return to the presidency, Stent points out, the Russian leader’s policy toward the Unites States was increasingly tied up with domestic political events in both countries. In the aftermath of street demonstrations in Moscow after rigged parliamentary elections, Putin used anti-Americanism to appeal to his political base and reassert political control. From the beginning of the Reset, the Obama administration said it would engage with Russian civil society and promote human rights, but when the Kremlin initiated its rollback, the United States seemed too locked into working with Russia on other issues to push back very hard.

“Three U.S presidents have tried to find the golden key that would unlock the door to a qualitatively better U.S.-Russian relationship since the Soviet collapse,” Stent concludes. “So far no one has found the key” (p. 274). Nor does Washington appear to have fully learned the lessons of preceding years. After temporarily putting the U.S.–Russia relationship on “pause” in 2013, Obama and his team reportedly have been working to get it back on track by quietly arranging a meeting this summer with Putin.

Stent recommends that US policymakers keep in mind that Russia is an important country that faces serious domestic challenges, that its worldview is significantly different than that of the United States and will remain so, that Washington should show restraint in commenting on Russian internal developments, and that the United States should focus on areas in which the two countries can and should work together. These are in large part sensible suggestions, but if followed, they risk conveying to the Kremlin the kind of meekness that undermined the Reset. The reader of this admirable book is thus left looking forward to what the author would suggest to Kremlin policymakers about modifying Russian behavior.