Pushing for US-Russia ‘reset 2.0’

06 02 13-010

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

The US ‘reset’ towards Russia during the first Obama administration had created ‘dividends for European security’, the IISS’s new senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia told an audience in London this week – even if this positive effect was underappreciated. However, relations with Russia in Obama’s second term would be complicated by Vladimir Putin’s recent return to the presidency and Putin’s less apparent warmth towards Washington than predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.

Samuel Charap said that increased cooperation between Moscow and Washington after President Barack Obama announced his wish to improve ties in 2009 had reduced tensions between Russia and the West. This gave Europe a ‘net security gain’, with Russia’s more conciliatory stance toward Europe increasing the sense of security within the NATO alliance and improving ‘alliance cohesion’.

This was in addition to the the global security gains that resulted from joint efforts on Iran, Afghanistan and in reducing nuclear materials, after periods of neglect and unsuccessful attempts to influence Russia under US President George W. Bush.

Charap, who arrives at IISS after a tenure at the US State Department as an advisor on arms control and international security, compared the US–Russia relationship to a car driving up a steep incline. In this analogy, the car’s petrol is represented by the ‘deliverables’, or issues on which US and Russia have agreed. These include the New START treaty on nuclear disarmament, Russian WTO membership and cooperation on reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, all of which were achieved during the most productive period of cooperation in 2009–11.

But to stop the car rolling backwards, the two countries also needed to ‘install brakes’ on the car, by tackling some more intractable issues alongside simpler ones.

Although the reset was an undeniably a positive achievement, it did not alter the fundamental problems of the relationship, Charap explained. Indeed, relations had deteriorated over the past year, as deliverables had slowed to a trickle and global issues, particularly the crisis in Syria, had exposed the sharp divisions between their respective ways of operating in the international system, particularly their attitudes towards state sovereignty.

Whenever they were working towards deliverables or had achieved them, the US and Russia regarded their ties as robust. However, when no new agreements arose, they reverted to mutual mistrust and paranoia.

Charap said President Putin had demonstrated less interest in strenghtening ties with Washington than President Medvedev. Instead, Putin seemed to be signalling that he was ‘fed up’ with US foreign policy towards Russia and US involvement in other countries. He also explained that the bilateral relationship had become a ‘tool for domestic politics’. With some voters questioning Putin’s legitimacy after disputed elections in 2012, the president had been forced to rely on stirring up anti-American sentiment to rally support and to create a siege mentality that allowed him to brand all who disagreed with the Russian leadership as traitors.

US Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon are preparing for new arms-control discussions with Russia – one of the more difficult issues. Charap told Foreign Policy last week that Obama was committed to reducing nuclear weapons, but it was unclear what kind of weapons would be discussed in the next round of negotiations, and that it would be difficult to convince sceptics in Russia and the United States that there should be a new agreement or treaty.

Charap ended his IISS discussion on a cautiously positive note, saying relations were unlikely to return to the lows of the Bush era. The US and Russia had strong incentives to cooperate on the issue of Afghanistan, in investment and trade, and over Obama’s clear commitment to negotiate on nuclear-weapons reduction.

Charap also described the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, as extremely well qualified to work with Russia, thanks to his experience in arms-control issues and his proven skill in handling difficult bilateral relationships, such as that between the US and Pakistan.

But it wouldn’t be easy, Charap concluded. ‘An abstract recognition of shared interests does not automatically lead to results.’

Watch the discussion – US-Russia relations in Obama’s second term: implications for Europe


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