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Beyond the “Reset Button”

A Strategy for U.S. Russia Policy

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama meets with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at Winfield House in London on April 1, 2009. President Obama' visit to Moscow in early July is an attempt to create a productive atmosphere for discussion of critical issues.

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When President Barack Obama alights in Moscow in early July for a summit with President Dmitry Medvedev, he must have more than a “reset button” to make real progress in creating a robust relationship with Russia. The reset—an attempt to create a productive atmosphere for discussion of critical issues—has encapsulated the administration’s approach to Russia thus far, and it has for the most part succeeded.

But the reset was an opening tactic, not a long-term strategy. The Bush administration’s policy of alternately embracing Russia and shunning it demonstrates the need for a set of principles and guidelines for day-to-day decisions. The Center for American Progress proposes six strategic goals for the administration to consider as it prepares for this critical summit in the coming weeks.

The center will present its full report on a progressive U.S. Russia policy agenda in the run-up to the summit. Here we map out a Russia strategy comprised of six components: making Russia a part of the solution to significant international problems; preparing to confront the challenges presented by both an assertive Russia and a declining Russia; bolstering our energy security and that of our allies; creating a secure environment in the post-Soviet region; encouraging the emergence of a full-fledged democracy in Russia; and integrating Russia into the international community and global economy.

The reset button has been interpreted to mean many different things: Everything from appeasement of an increasingly assertive Russia to an offer of strategic partnership. Some have savaged it as a “carrots-and-cakes” approach or a “deeply misleading, even vapid, metaphor for diplomatic relations.”

These characterizations miss the point. The “reset” is not a Russia policy, let alone a strategy. Instead, it is a tactic: an attempt to improve the atmosphere of the relationship. This atmosphere had become toxic following Russia’s invasion of Georgia and a number of Bush administration moves, such as the planned installation of ballistic missile defense components in Eastern Europe, which the Russians interpreted as hostile acts. It was impossible for the two countries to discuss even the most basic issues. Indeed, at one point, the Bush administration actually cut off all bilateral military contacts. The Obama administration was determined to ratchet down the tension and create an environment in which issues of shared interest could be discussed and disagreements could be managed.

The reset button appears to have succeeded in creating such an atmospheric change. It spurred a sober examination of the issues, allowing policymakers on both sides to determine where they can cooperate and where they have to agree to disagree.

The joint statement the U.S. and Russian presidents signed during their first meeting in April demonstrated this progress. The document outlines more than 15 areas of cooperation or specific policy initiatives. These include working together on the Iranian nuclear issue, cooperating on Afghanistan, preparing for the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in 2010, addressing climate change, and exploring ways to collaborate on missile defense. The United States indicated its intent to push ahead on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the U.S.-Russia Civil Nuclear Agreement (also known as the 123 agreement).

The presidents also issued a set of directives to their negotiators on concluding a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty Agreement this year, which is the main priority in U.S.-Russia relations in the short term.

The joint statement shows that the reset button has in fact achieved its objective: The most important issues are now on the table and are actively being discussed. According to several senior administration officials, working-level relations have significantly improved, and disagreements are being acknowledged without hysteria. But for the long term, the administration must do more than clearing the air and defining areas of cooperation and areas of divergence. We will need to specify strategic goals for our Russia policy.

The history of the bilateral relationship in the post-Cold War period demonstrates why a strategy is key. Under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, U.S.-Russia relations vacillated between declarations of strategic partnership to periods of cold peace featuring condemnations of the other side’s actions and mutual recriminations.

Under President Bush, these see-saws were to a significant extent a function of the absence of a Russia policy per se. Officials largely viewed relations with Russia as a means of achieving broader U.S. goals. Russia was relevant only insofar as it could help advance the administration’s agenda on issues such as Afghanistan or Iran. U.S.-Russia relations in themselves were an afterthought, and therefore the Bush administration saw no need for a comprehensive policy strategy.

To a certain extent this is understandable. The Bush administration had embroiled itself in two intractable wars that dominated the agenda. Yet we neglect Russia at our peril, no matter what the international circumstances. The country plays a key role in many of the most difficult and important issues facing the United States and also presents us with a number of challenges that cannot be ignored. We need a strategy to act as an anchor for our Russia policy. With goals to guide day-to-day decisions, U.S. policy will be more coherent and will better serve the national interest.

The six components of a successful Russia strategy should be:

  • Making Russia a part of the solution to significant international problems.
  • Preparing to confront the challenges presented by both an assertive Russia and a declining Russia.
  • Bolstering our energy security and that of our allies.
  • Creating a secure environment in the post-Soviet region.
  • Encouraging the emergence of a full-fledged democracy in Russia.
  • Integrating Russia into the international community and global economy.

The first component should be to maximize the extent to which Russian policies complement our objectives on issues critical to our national security interests. Or, put another way, to make Russia a part of the solution to significant international problems. Russia can play a major role on a wide range of foreign policy challenges facing the United States. This is particularly true in terms of arms control and nonproliferation, since Russia is our only “peer” on these issues.

But these are far from the only areas where Moscow can be critical to solving intractable problems facing the country. Others include preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, achieving stability in Afghanistan, addressing climate change, and countering transnational threats, to name just a few. While domestic developments in Russia will determine the degree to which it is possible for the country to be part of the solution to these problems, we must nonetheless pursue cooperation. Given the gravity of the threats facing the United States and Russia’s potential to play a positive role, it is certainly worth it.

A second strategic goal is to prepare for a variety of scenarios for Russia’s internal development and changes in its external posture. Social, economic, and political trends in Russia are and have been for the past 20 years highly volatile. Until the economic crisis hit in the late summer of 2008, we faced a resurgent Russia, with a booming economy, a growing middle class, a tightly controlled political system, huge increases in military spending, and an expansionist, assertive foreign policy that often conflicted with our own.

Under such circumstances, the United States must be prepared to muster the diplomatic, military, and economic tools to respond when Russia’s actions run counter to our interests. While its boom was impressive, the foundations for Russia’s resurgence were fundamentally weak: Its military remains for the most part unreformed and dysfunctional; its economy is largely dependent on natural resource exports; a growing Islamist insurgency threatens the stability of the North Caucasus region; governance is poor, allowing for widespread corruption; in the absence of genuine democratic politics there is instead elite conflict that threatens the so-called “power vertical”; and the demographic catastrophe that began in the early 1990s continues largely unabated.

As a result, we might be confronted with a declining Russia in the medium to long term. The United States must also be prepared for this scenario and all its possible implications, ranging from a power vacuum in Central Asia to a failure to secure weapons materials. In short, we should be ready both to deal with challenges to our national interests presented by Russia and to manage potential risks associated with its possible decline.

A third strategic goal should be to increase our own energy security and that of our allies. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of energy, we are the world’s largest importer, and Europe depends on Russian gas. We must cooperate with Russia, as well as directly engage with other suppliers and transit countries in the region. Tools to achieve this goal include diversification of transit routes, transparency, and modernization of infrastructure.

Russia is also the world’s third-largest energy consumer and one of the most energy-intensive economies in the world. Therefore, efficiency and alternative and renewable sources should clearly be part of the energy security agenda as well.

A fourth goal should be to ensure stability and security in the former Soviet region. We must uphold international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and prevent more subtle threats to the independence of Russia’s neighbors. Moscow’s behavior toward its neighbors has demonstrated that the United States must not treat these issues in isolation from our Russia policy.

The August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia is far from the only example of Russian threats to our partners in the region. The latest gas war with Ukraine that resulted in major cut-offs across Europe and pressure on the Kyrgyz government to close the U.S. air base at Manas demonstrate that Russian actions not only threaten the security and sovereignty of its neighbors, but often also represent a direct challenge to the United States and our allies.

U.S. policymakers must reject the Russian notion of “spheres of privileged interests” and take actions to demonstrate a commitment to creating a more secure environment in the region. Russia will always play a major role in this part of the world, but it should do so while treating its neighbors as fully independent states that control their own domestic politics and foreign policy choices. We should also address regional conflicts in order to better secure the region.

A fifth component of a Russia strategy should be to embed the universal values of democracy, human rights, political openness, and the rule of law in Russia. We must do so with respect for Russia’s distinctive history and culture and its political sensitivities.

The legacy of the 1990s, when the word democracy gained a negative connotation among the Russian population, as well as the Bush administration’s human rights record, will make this enterprise extremely difficult. But it is critically important nonetheless—the emergence of a full-fledged democracy in Russia is in the interest of the United States. A strategic partnership between the two countries is highly unlikely with the “values gap” between the United States and Russia that exists today. There is a far greater chance that such a partnership can materialize if this gap can be bridged.

A sixth and related aspect of our Russia strategy should be to facilitate Russia’s integration into the global economy and the international community. This goal can only be realized in the long term, since today’s Russian leadership does not consistently demonstrate interest in such integration, at least on terms acceptable to Western partners.

But it is in the U.S. national interest that Russia be prosperous and secure and that its policies, both foreign and domestic, accord with internationally accepted norms. An integrated Russia will be a more consistent partner, facilitate our own economic growth through increased trade ties and an improved investment climate, and be a better neighbor in the post-Soviet region.

Several of these six goals are mutually reinforcing. For example, a Russia that is more integrated and embedded in the international system will be a more democratic Russia and a democratic Russia will likely be a more reliable partner in addressing issues of mutual concern.

These six strategic goals constitute a progressive framework for Russia policy. Such a strategy remains true to progressive values and the need to protect the security of the United States, while acknowledging that these are interlinked—that there is no conflict between our ideals and our interests.

To move beyond the atmospherics of the reset button, the administration should embrace these goals for its Russia policy. The July summit meeting between the presidents in Moscow will give Obama an opportunity to do just that.

Samuel Charap is a Fellow at American Progress and a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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