Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Reset That Wasn’t: The Permanent Crisis of U.S.-Russia Relations
The Reset That Wasn’t: The Permanent Crisis of U.S.-Russia Relations

The Reset That Wasn’t: The Permanent Crisis of U.S.-Russia Relations

Patterns in Russian-American Relations

Donald Trump is the only President of the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union who has been unable to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia. While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama resets didn’t last, they provided periods of respite in the historically tense ties and allowed both sides to achieve important policy goals. Ironically, Trump’s affinity for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, is the main reason for his inability to put the relationship on a more stable footing. Suspicious of his motivations and put off by his chaotic leadership style, Trump’s own administration and the U.S. Congress are essentially running U.S. policy on Russia themselves, with the president’s role reduced to endorsing their decisions. Despite being endowed with the bully pulpit of the presidency and an itchy Twitter finger, Trump is a loud but often inconsequential bystander to the process of managing the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Keir Giles of Chatham House has argued that Russia’s relationship with the West moves through predictable stages: euphoria, pragmatism, disillusionment, crisis, reset. This pattern had held true—with minor variations—in the post-Cold war era. That is, until recently. But the current crisis in the relationship, which dates to Russia’s early 2014 seizure of Crimea and support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, shows no signs of abating. With no reset in the cards and both sides nursing grievances and looking for ways to punish the other, the U.S.-Russia relationship looks set to be stuck in crisis mode for the foreseeable future.

Things weren’t always this bad, but the good times never lasted for long. The euphoria of the early 1990s years soon gave way to expectations tempered with pragmatism on both sides. Boris Yeltsin’s bloody 1993 showdown with the Russian parliament tarnished his democratic credentials in the West, and Russia’s ugly early experience with democracy and market economics eroded Russian trust in these Western ideals. Russia’s 1998 financial crisis and default brought about disillusionment on both sides, and NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo threw the relationship into crisis.

The 9/11 attacks and Putin’s offer of assistance to the U.S.—over the objections of the Duma and some in his government—marked the first reset in the post-Soviet relationship. The euphoric stage of the relationship is captured in George W. Bush’s remark that he had looked Putin in the eye and “found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Bush presumably regretted that remark later since the relationship soon began its predictable slide through pragmatism and disillusionment into crisis. After a period of pragmatic cooperation over Afghanistan, the decline began. The 2003 Iraq War, NATO’s 2004 enlargement into the post-Soviet Baltic Republics, and the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine all caused disillusionment in Russia.

That disillusionment burst into the open with Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, which was a broadside against what he claimed was an out-of-control America: “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are . . . coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.” Within 18 months of Putin’s speech, the relationship was once again in crisis—this time over Russia’s August 2008 military intervention in Georgia.

Barack Obama’s election in the U.S. offered an opportunity to once again reset the relationship with Russia. The Obama administration was careful to temper expectations, essentially skipping the euphoric stage of the relationship by basing its reset on pragmatic, interest-based calculations. The Obama reset allowed the U.S. and Russia to ink a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), agree on the use of Russian territory to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan, strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran, and set the stage for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Obama reset began to unravel in late 2011 when tens of thousands of Russians gathered in major cities to protest Vladimir Putin’s plan to return to the presidency and ballot rigging in parliamentary elections. After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “serious concerns” about the fairness of the elections, Putin directly accused her of encouraging the protesters. Disagreements over U.S. plans for a European missile defense system further strained the relationship, and it descended into crisis in early 2014 with the Russian seizure of Crimea and fomenting of armed separatism in eastern Ukraine.

No Room for Reset

U.S.-Russia relations have been frozen in crisis since then. At almost five years, this marks the longest sustained downturn in relations since the end of the Cold War. In previous cycles, strong personal connections between the U.S. and Russian presidents provided a foundation that allowed for cooperation on issues of mutual importance, at least until the structural contradictions in the relationship caused the predictable erosion of trust. In the 1990s, Russia-watchers spoke of the “Bill and Boris Show” after the close personal relationship between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin. In the post-9/11 reset, Bush’s “I looked into his eyes” remark captured the early personal affinity between presidents. And the Obama reset was marked by a clear preference for Dmitrii Medvedev, seen as more liberal and pragmatic than his predecessor and successor Putin.

Despite Putin’s evident preference for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Trump’s affinity for Putin, the personal relationship between the men cannot serve as a foundation for a reset in the bilateral relationship due to Trump’s inability to acknowledge Russian interference in the election and his refusal to criticize Putin. These two sticking points have undermined trust in his instincts on Russia. As a result, Congress and the professional national security bureaucracy are largely managing the U.S. side of the bilateral relationship. Congress imposed sanctions on Russia and restricted Trump’s ability to lift them. The Departments of Defense and State convinced the White House to sell advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles to Georgia and Ukraine despite Trump’s reluctance to go ahead with the sale. Trump was similarly reluctant to expel Russian diplomats from the U.S. as punishment for the use of a nerve agent in the United Kingdom, but was apparently convinced to do so by senior advisors.

More recently, the president’s reaction to the Russian seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait differed markedly from those of his top advisors. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s “outlaw actions,” adding that the incident was an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory” and “another reckless Russian escalation.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the “aggressive Russian action” and—like Haley—labelled it a “dangerous escalation.” For his part, President Trump said, “We do not like what’s happening either way. We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out.” Later, Trump gave the Kerch Strait incident as the reason for cancelling his scheduled meeting with Putin at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, although the two did meet informally during a dinner there.

The Two-Track Presidency

The current state of the U.S.-Russia relationship is unprecedented. As an anonymous senior administration official noted in a now-famous New York Times editorial, this is a two-track presidency. On one track, Trump “shows a preference for autocrats and dictators,” complains that senior staff members let him “get boxed into further confrontation with Russia,” and expresses “frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior.” On the other track, Russia is “called out for meddling and punished accordingly” and sanctioned “for its malign behavior” by Trump’s administration and Congress.

Until the Trump presidency ends, a reset will be impossible, and the personal relationship between presidents—instead of being a shock absorber in a relationship otherwise devoid of meaningful institutional or economic ties—will be mostly irrelevant. Even in normal times, Russia is a problem to be managed as often as it is a partner to be engaged. The reverse is also true: the U.S. is a problem for Russia as often as it is a partner. In these times of permanent crisis, when the U.S. president is largely a bystander in the U.S.-Russia relationship, the “steady state” the writer of the anonymous New York Times editorial claims to represent has assumed a heavy and precariously balanced burden.

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