The Aspen Institute

America’s Reset with Russia: Too Early to Call It a Success

Announced by the United States government in early 2009 as a fix to the tensions erupted towards the end of the Bush presidency, the 'reset' with Russia has since delivered a number of results. It is no wonder that the Obama administration has presented it as a major diplomatic accomplishment. The improvement in U.S.-Russian relations has helped Washington address some of America’s most pressing foreign policy priorities as defined in 2009-2010.

Russia has significantly contributed to the implementation of the ‘Afghan surge’. Thanks to its participation in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the volume of supplies that reach Afghanistan, bypassing less secure Pakistani routes, has expanded substantially in the past two years. According to White House estimates, over 35,000 US troops have been flown to Afghanistan through the Russian airspace since the signing of the Air Transit Agreement in July 2009. Moscow’s cooperation has also extended to the fight against opium trade – a key source of revenue for Afghan insurgents.

Make no mistake: Russia has never renounced a prominent role in Central Asia as recent meetings hosted by the Kremlin with Pakistani and Afghan officials clearly reveal. As is often pointed out, Moscow might not be comfortable with a (in any case unlikely) full-scale victory of coalition forces in Afghanistan, leading to extended U.S. influence on Central Asian affairs. Russia’s external support of the surge, however, cannot be underestimated in its importance as the Obama administration has staked on it the success of the war in Afghanistan.

A second result of U.S. engagement with Russia has been Moscow’s vote last June of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 [1]. Russia’s backing of new UN-mandated sanctions against Iran has critically helped the Obama administration forge a global consensus around a dual-track approach combining diplomatic overtures with coercive multilateral initiatives aimed at dissuading Teheran from developing the nuclear weapon. Bilateral military cooperation and Moscow’s active support to the development of Iranian civil nuclear power still testify to a discrepancy in Russian and Western approaches to the Iranian question. Although the overall threat assessment remains different, it is nonetheless significant that the Kremlin has decided to side with America, Europe and China on an issue as relevant as sanctions, causing Russian-Iranian relations to reach their lowest point in years.

Last but not least, the reset has delivered ‘New START’, the most comprehensive strategic arms control treaty in two decades [2]. New START has highlighted Russia’s role as one of America’s key partners in nuclear disarmament, thus, lending credibility to US initiatives towards the end-goal of a ‘world free of nuclear weapons’ – the vision evoked by President Obama in his 2009 Prague speech. Moscow’s constructive participation in the Washington Nuclear Summit last April and in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May has also highlighted Russia’s valuable contribution to efforts aimed at strengthening the global nuclear non-proliferation regime – one of Washington’s and Europe’s stated top strategic priorities.

European security: unfinished business
As important as they have been, these results are still not enough to comfortably conclude that a new era in Western-Russian relations has begun. As one moves from United States and Western priorities to issues more closely affecting the Russian national interest the balance sheet of the reset becomes more mixed.

The new Russian military doctrine approved last February still identifies NATO enlargement as the key threat to Russia’s national security [3]. Provided that New START is ratified by the U.S. Senate, new rounds of arms control negotiations look more difficult to open as the Kremlin has so far not responded to Washington’s proposal to now move to tactical nuclear weapons (an area in which Moscow has a numerical advantage).

Moscow also remains uncomfortable with the new ballistic missile defense plan as outlined by President Obama in September 2009. As the new system supplanting Bush’s still envisages components in Central and Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has not dropped its criticism that its development will be used by the US to move Western military systems closer to the Russian border, thus creating new vulnerabilities for Russian defense.

In this context, Moscow has so far not given a conclusive answer to the offer to cooperate with the United States and NATO in the development of a new missile defense system also covering the geographically European territory of Russia. The vision of "one security roof from Vancouver to the Urals", to use NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s phrase, has indeed some appeal in Russian circles as it echoes proposals that Russian officials have put forth since the early 2000s [4]. What the Kremlin could be interested in, however, is a common pan-European missile defense system as an element of a larger new "European security architecture" that is no longer NATO-centric [5]. As the United States and NATO have tried so far to co-opt Russia into an existing US-led project, Moscow has showed only limited interest. The situation may change if Russian concerns with regard to the development of the new plan are addressed and Moscow's views on European security are given greater attention in the transatlantic debate in the months to come.

Perhaps, the major question left unaddressed by the reset is exactly ‘European security’ – a broad category of issues often having to do with Western and Russian respective influences in the post-Soviet space. U.S. officials contend that, although currently focused on extra-European issues, US-Russian cooperation can contribute greatly to an overall improvement of Western-Russian relations, including concerns such as security developments in Europe. Absorbed by other priorities, however, the Obama administration has so far failed to translate its vision of European security as a ‘positive-sum game’ into a strategy.

NATO enlargement to the East has been put on hold mainly because the internal situation of potential candidate countries makes it highly imprudent to rush the process. No conclusive answer, however, has been given to the question – dramatically brought to the fore by the Georgian-Russian war of August 2008 - of whether enlargement of the Western order remains the most effective way, from a US perspective, to promote stability in Europe. The Obama administration was left with no choice but to acknowledge Kyiv’s recent decision to pass a law on ‘non-bloc status’ (which prevents Ukraine from applying for NATO membership). During her July visit to Ukraine, Hillary Clinton went so far as to state that the alternative between the West and Russia is a ‘false choice’ [6]. The Obama administration, however, has not clarified if this can be the starting point for a paradigm shift in America’s vision of  a ‘wider Europe’ or if it applies strictly to the case of Ukraine in the present situation.

In the absence of clear orientations and initiatives coming from Washington, Russia has continued by and large with its previous policies. In fact, the reset with Moscow seems currently de-linked from developments on the ground in the post-Soviet space. The most dramatic case is Georgia. Russia’s continuing violation of the terms of the armistice with Tbilisi – including occupation of parts of Georgian territory and the establishment of permanent military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – has been firmly condemned by Washington but has not led the Obama administration to interrupt or scale down cooperation with Moscow in other areas.

The way forward
A year and a half after its launch, the reset stands out as an important initiative whose results, however, remain fragmentary. U.S.-Russian rapprochement was a critical objective for Washington to pursue in the context of a larger revision of the U.S. strategy after the Bush era. US-Russian cooperation has undoubtedly helped address a number of challenges and crises which were identified as top priorities in Western capitals in 2009-2010. It is too early, however, to file away the reset as a success. As it is carried forward, Western engagement with Russia should encompass a broader agenda including European security. After all, it was tensions in Europe that created the need for the reset in the first place and it is Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the evolving post-Cold War European order which is at the root of Western-Russian disagreements of the past years.

In the months ahead the Obama administration should spell out more clearly its vision of European security, including by detailing which red lines cannot be crossed by Moscow without causing the United States and NATO to take counter-initiatives or suspend the reset. A positive agenda should at the same time identify areas in which the United States is committed to working with Moscow as closely as it does with its European allies. More critically, the United States should signal the extent to which it is ready to scale down its direct influence on European developments, provided that this does not lead to undoing the post-Cold War European order but to reforming it in a way that is consistent with the new geography of American, European and Russian interests in the 21st century. In this connection, the Obama administration should drop its opposition to exploring new legally binding instruments for European security [7].

The EU, for its part, should determine what role it can play in the new context – something that it has so far seemed unprepared to do despite Washington’s support for a more proactive role of Europeans. The Russian-Polish rapprochement following the tragedy in Smolensk (in which the Polish President, among others, lost his life in a plane accident) is only a starting point but could be the catalyst for broader political developments in EU-Russian relations.  On a different level, the EU could take advantage of Russia’s growing interest in ‘modernization’, a goal genuinely embraced by Moscow after the latest economic crisis has further exposed Russia’s structural weaknesses, to strike a broader deal on a new EU-Russia partnership based on economic cooperation but also including common strategic priorities and goals for EU-Russia cooperation in wider Europe. It is in this context that the EU Neighborhood and Enlargement policies, currently under review, should be rethought.

The NATO and EU-U.S. Summits, both scheduled for late November in Lisbon, provide an important occasion for EU and U.S. leaders to start discussing a common transatlantic agenda for Europe while involving Russia. If carefully plotted out, such second phase of the reset would have the potential to really inaugurate a new era in Western-Russian cooperation – one that builds on U.S.-Russian rapprochement to open a new page for Europe.


[1] Full text of the Resolution available at UN.org.

[2] Full text of the Treaty available at state.gov.

[3] An unofficial English translation of the doctrine can be found at worldpoliticsreview.com.

[4] See, Anders Rasmussen, ‘Building a Euro-Atlantic Security Architecture’, Brussels Forum, 27 March 2010.

[5] For a discussion, see, Vladimir Baranovsky, ‘Russia's Approach to Security Building in the Euro-Atlantic Zone’ The International Spectator 45:2, 2010, pp.41-53.

[6] Hillary Clinton, ‘Remarks on the Future of European Security’, 29 January 2010, L’Ecole Militaire, Paris.

[7] On this point, see, Hillary Clinton, ‘Remarks on the Future of European Security’, cit.