One of the first things that the new Barack Obama administration initiated after taking office in January 2009 was a systemic, comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Russia. Given the sustained criticism that President Obama has received from both of this year’s major presidential candidates for how he conducted U.S. relations with Moscow, a major policy review is all but certain after Inauguration Day—and, if press reports are accurate, is already unofficially occurring within the Hillary Clinton campaign. To aid and influence this process, a number of different institutions that comprise the U.S. foreign policy community are issuing analysis and assessments—including the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College in our recently released Russia Futures report.
One of the realities of American politics is that candidates complain and criticize but once in office new presidents often reconfirm the policies of their predecessors. In evaluating the eight years of the Obama administration’s Russia policies—both the 2009 “reset” with the Kremlin that defined the first term and the shift to growing confrontation that characterized the second—what might a 2017 policy review conclude? In particular, will such a process accurately dissect what worked (and what did not) with the reset attempt, now generally derided as failed and naïve, and will it revisit the assumptions about Russia’s probable medium-term trajectory that have guided U.S. policy responses on Russia for the past three years?
Why the Reset Happened
Any post mortem on the reset must deal with the challenge of separating the present-day caricatures of that policy gamble with the actual assumptions that served as the basis for its conception. The reset grew out of the correct assessment that U.S.-Russia relations had, by 2008, become trapped in a dead end around the issues of missile defense and NATO enlargement as well as the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and the August 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia. The gamble was to try to create some breathing room using a strategic pause where contentious issues could be isolated in order to develop more promising areas of cooperation. The Russia-Georgia conflict was allowed to remain frozen in order to clear the way for Russian entry into the World Trade Organization and to permit the conclusion of a U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear agreement. Technical problems with a proposed missile defense system created the grounds for canceling U.S. deployments of components in Central-Eastern Europe; in return, Moscow dropped its objections to imposing stronger sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambitions. Moreover, recognizing the lack of ballast in the Washington-Moscow relationship, both sides looked to bolster economic ties so that stronger commercial relationships could provide some shock absorption when political disagreements arose—an approach that led to U.S. investment in the Skolkovo tech-hub project and what was seen as the signature item on the economic agenda of the reset: a partnership between Exxon-Mobil and Russian state-controlled oil major Rosneft to develop the hydrocarbon reserves of the Russian Arctic.
But the reset depended on a number of particular factors. First and foremost, it could only succeed as long as the contentious question of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation remained quiescent. U.S. legislation—sponsored and supported by then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007—made it U.S. policy to keep a door open for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, but Washington was not going to force the NATO path if Ukraine itself was not interested. The election of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 saw the government in Kiev itself take NATO membership off the agenda in favor of neutrality and of agreeing to a long-term Russian naval presence in Crimea. Second, the reset with the United States—as well as with key European partners—was aided by the presence of Dmitry Medvedev in the presidential chair. Even if everyone knew that Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, was still quite influential, Medvedev’s presidency gave the West a younger, “reform-minded” interlocutor with whom to do business.