Resetting the Reset: Looking Back at the Cycle of U.S.-Russia Relations
August 9, 2017
Since the early 1990s, the U.S.-Russia relationship has faced a series of ebbs and flows amid numerous attempts to build a better rapport. The reasons behind the failure to create a positive relationship have been the subject of much debate.
Starting from Clinton administration, the idea of rebuilding the U.S. relationship with Russia has been a leading U.S. foreign policy objective. President Clinton’s decision to support Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation and his offer of economic aid to the former Soviet Union are two such examples. The U.S. applauded Russia’s movement towards democratization and celebrated the fact that Clinton would be the first U.S. president in decades who did not need a Cold War plan. Yet, by 1995, concerns over Eastern European security in the post-Cold War era threatened the agreements that had marked Clinton’s early years. Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya and the U.S. military intervention in Bosnia became points of contention, and the accession of some former Soviet states to NATO did not ease the rising tensions.
This theme continued into the administration of George W. Bush, which focused primarily on nuclear arms treaties. In an attempt to reconcile differences over missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, Bush and Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), in which both countries promised to decrease their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the following ten years. However, Bush’s push to see Ukraine and Georgia join NATO and U.S. intervention in Iraq distanced the two leaders.
The first Obama term ushered in the now infamous “reset” period. The purpose of the reset was to get the leaders of both nations back at the negotiating table in order to discuss issues such as nuclear arsenals and trade deals, among other things. The initial phase of the reset focused specifically on building a relationship between recently elected U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. President Obama hoped to start his presidency off by mending what was perhaps America’s most important relationship, and Medvedev would prove to the Russian population and the Kremlin that he was capable of advancing Russia’s global interests.
A Russia with more ties to the U.S. was also intended to be a freer Russia in the long term, and during visits to the country, President Obama continued the tradition of meeting with opposition leaders, civil society groups, and business leaders. The Obama administration wanted to leave the image of America as a global policeman behind, and this aspiration matched well with Russia’s desire for a more equal relationship between the two superpowers. Initial meetings between the two seemed to suggest that their relationship was productive and amicable. The early period during President Obama’s first term was marked by a flurry of treaties and agreements, ranging from bilateral arms reduction through New START, the treaty which superseded the Bush-era SORT, to the accession of Russia into the World Trade Organization.
While these meetings and deliverables of the early years looked promising, to use them as the sole marker for relationship success would be misleading. The period was duly marked by continued concessions to Russia, and by, perhaps more importantly, the continued tension between Russia and NATO. It was during this time that Ukraine’s 2008 application for NATO membership continued to sit in limbo despite continued U.S. support.
This “reset” period resulted in a grand collapse with the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency in 2012. The Obama administration had focused so much on building a relationship with then-President Medvedev that it was not prepared for Putin’s return to power. Additionally, increasing tensions over Libya and U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe did nothing to help mend the rapidly weakening relationship. The desire for an amicable relationship during this time was completely destroyed in 2014 with the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests.
While the protests were successful in ousting Viktor Yanukovych as president, the resulting Russian aggression in Ukraine wreaked havoc on Putin’s already tenuous relationship with the West. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued military support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine left the country fractured, and Russia’s ties to the West nearly severed. Countering Putin’s efforts in Ukraine, the U.S. offered political support and financial aid to Ukraine, and the U.S. and its European allies imposed sanctions on Russia. The sanctions exacerbated the already negative effects that the drop in oil prices had on the Russian economy, forcing it into a temporary recession.
Prior to President Trump taking office, the latest round of Russia sanctions were imposed by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Now, the issue of further Russian election interference has pressured Congress into “curtailing” the White House’s ability to lift Russian sanctions. This move by Congress, and Trump’s subsequent act of signing the legislation into law, illustrates the clear intent to punish Russia for its actions during the election, and it reaffirms the importance and complexity of Russian election interference. Congress’ passage of this bill also prompted a response from Putin, who announced that 755 U.S. diplomatic employees must leave the country by September 1, in addition to seizing two U.S. diplomatic properties.
Today, the U.S. is faced with several questions about its relationship with Russia. Are U.S.-Russia relations doomed to follow this cycle of attempted resets and unmet expectations? Should improving its relationship with Russia be a foreign policy priority for the U.S. right now? And perhaps most importantly, how should the two countries make sustainable repairs to this seemingly irreparable relationship?
The Ukrainian crisis sparked a renewed interest in how to mend the tarnished U.S.-Russia relationship. Russian experts, foreign policy analysts, and former diplomats all have suggestions on how to handle the issue of Russia. Most are split between two options: isolation or engagement.
Individuals wanting to isolate Russia argue that the international community should come together and treat Russia as a rogue nation. Isolation has, in recent years, come in the form of economic sanctions, and the sanctions have consistently been in place since in 2014. On the other hand, engagement—whether it be positive engagement after diplomatic discussions or negative engagement as a reaction to Russian aggression—has been far more sporadic and multidirectional. Diplomatic engagement, meant to form some kind of agreement on issues like nuclear proliferation, crises in the Middle East, and frozen conflicts in Eurasia, has had varied levels of success. However, more aggressive forms of engagement with countries within Russia’s “sphere of influence,” such as training Ukrainian troops in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, have had exclusively negative effects on the relationship.
The debate on how to engage with Russia still continues to this day across a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, a hardline policy against Russia is suggested in order to improve Russia’s behavior—and in turn, its relationship with the U.S.—in the long term. Increasing military support in Ukraine, continuing missile defense efforts in Europe, maintaining ties with NATO, and cracking down on Russia’s human rights violations all fall under the hardline umbrella. While these actions will certainly send a clear message to Putin and the Russian government, there is no evidence that they would also encourage Putin to reverse his aggressive actions and rhetoric. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that aggressive, hardline policies against Russia may actually encourage more aggression and anti-American sentiment in Russian political dialogue.
The opposing argument favors diplomatic compromise and a return to “normalcy” as hallmarks of a new U.S.-Russia relationship. After Obama’s rejection of Putin and his actions in Ukraine at the end of his second term, some argue that simply letting the Russians back in the door and agreeing to meet with officials could do a lot to start mending the relationship. However, Obama’s attempts to treat Russia as a cooperative partner from the beginning was ineffective and, as some would argue, gave the Kremlin the opportunity to pursue destructive policies while Washington waited to intervene until the line had been crossed.
Seeing as neither of these approaches has been successful, what approach should the Trump administration take in the coming months? As prominent Russia scholar James Goldgeier argues, any chance at a successful U.S.-Russia reset must begin with identifying where the U.S. and Russia have a common interest. Perhaps, the place to begin is in developing nuclear agreements, combatting terrorism efforts, or tamping down the North Korean nuclear threat. The U.S.-Russia relationship ultimately has a long way to go before reaching anything close to friendly, and it will take a heavy dose of patience, cooperation, and compromise on both sides to mend it.