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Commentary | 6 February 2013

The US-Russia Reset in Obama’s Second Term: A View from Moscow

How do people in Moscow assess the current state of Russian‑American relations and their immediate prospects?  At a very general level, it can be said the predominant mood is not optimistic. It runs as follows: four years after President Obama initiated the ‘reset’ at the beginning of his first term, bilateral relations seem to have reached their lowest point in the current century, if not in the entire period since the demise of the Soviet Union.

It would be wrong to overdramatize the situation. Indeed, practical interaction continues, the cold war pattern of behavior seems to have been abandoned, hopefully forever, and the rhetoric rarely goes beyond a certain limit of political correctness. But mutual irritation seems to be becoming more salient and to draw its energy from more numerous and various sources. In the international arena, there are few overlapping or coinciding priorities in the two countries’ agendas, whereas the logic pointing to the competitive positioning of Russia and the USA seems stronger than any signs of an emerging joint strategy and tactics.

It is not surprising therefore that in Russia the very notion of the ‘reset’ – whatever the motives, substance and concrete results of this undertaking have been – is basically considered a thing of the past. And the United States is not expected to engage in a ‘reset’ as it did four years ago. In 2009, overcoming the legacy of George Bush Jr’s confrontational and unilateral policy was expedient. The change of administration in Washington and the arrival of new political figures made it possible. But today, the situation is 100 per cent different. With the US president remaining in office and the Democrats still a ruling party in Congress, the continuation of the ‘reset’ or the proclamation of a fresh start would in fact only mean either questioning the logic of Obama’s own policy during his first term or recognizing its failure.

While not anticipating any refreshed terminology from Washington, Moscow seems profoundly upset by the fact that the policy-making of both countries is increasingly affected by the media and public opinion.  Both countries are becoming more critical than benevolent when assessing the other. In this regard, Russia’s domestic developments are the most important factor. The manipulations and the use of force against the awakened opposition, as well as the overall deterioration of the political atmosphere in Russia seriously affects the country’s external image – and gives little ground for expecting more positive attitudes from abroad.

In addition, the Kremlin has chosen ‑ as the main propaganda message against its opponents ‑ to blame foreign interference for undermining internal stability. Unsophisticated and even primitive as it is, this traditional argument is mainly addressed to the domestic audience. Moscow’s official policy will not be built upon it but it certainly promotes isolationist and xenophobic attitudes in Russian society. Washington is a noteworthy and distinctive focus of this campaign – insofar as the Kremlin designates the protesters in Moscow as ‘agents of the US State Department’.

Furthermore, the Magnitsky Act signed into law by President Obama in December 2012 became a powerful additional trigger for promoting anti-Americanism in Russian politics. What followed was not only highly irritated official reaction in Moscow, but also the unprecedented hysteria of practically all pro-government politicians and media. The United States was also the main target of ‘countermeasures’ initiated by the State Duma. The decision to ban the adoption of Russian children into the United States provoked strong protest in Russia itself as a senseless and dishonorable act, and critics view it as a depressing sign with respect to the future of the bilateral relationship. Interestingly, many of their opponents – politically loyal to the government and/or ideologically anti-Western – would agree with such forecasts, although certainly drawing them from the US unacceptable involvement in Russia’s internal affairs and Moscow’s legitimate counteraction thereto.

However, in Russia all this does not seem to be taken necessarily as an indicator of approaching exceptionally‘hard times’ in the bilateral relationship. The considerations mentioned above are often relegated to second place against what could be defined as more ‘rational imperatives’. It is assumed that declaratory excesses (as well as the perception thereof) could certainly affect practical policy but will not necessarily determine it. Even dedicated opponents of the regime refrain from exaggerating the impact of noisy and spectacular ‘anti-Americanism’ on the official relationship. Cautious optimists also exist within the pro-governmental clusters of politicians, businessmen, analysts, media figures, and opinion formers.

The ‘optimistic’ set of arguments heard basically include the following:

(i) Notwithstanding the ideological grievances held by the Kremlin against the White House, the victory of Barack Obama is undoubtedly a better option for Moscow in comparison with the alternative of Mitt Romney who openly proclaimed Russia to be ‘the main geopolitical opponent’ of the United States.

(ii) Russia is not going to be among the main foreign policy priorities of the next US administration. Other matters will be the focus of US attention – such as China, Asia, global financial institutions, the Muslim world. Each of these contains a certain Russian component, but nowhere is the latter a really significant one. Some in Moscow may feel humiliated by this diminishing of Russia’s international profile, but this very situation reduces the field of eventual conflict with the United States.

(iii) At the same time there are a number of rather significant problems with respect to which the cooperative interaction with Russia is in the interests of the United States and where both sides could have a valuable non-zero-sum dialogue and cooperation. These include three big issues: nuclear arms control, Afghanistan, and Iran. Within each of these three, the positive interaction of the two countries could turn out to be impossible. But this is by no means inevitable. On the contrary, sometimes, as with respect to the problem of Afghanistan, an evolution towards an alliance-type relationship should not be excluded.

(iv) The new ‘team’ of President Obama’s will consist of people who are inclined towards compromise and a flexible approach in the US’s ‘Russia policy’ rather than a shift towards assertiveness and intransigence. It is true that assessments may differ; some observers in Moscow would say that John Kerry as Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary and Tom Donilon as National Security Adviser constitute a ‘dream team’ for Russia, while others would apprehend the mobilization of political and ideological lobbies against sending conciliatory signals to the Kremlin. Anyhow, the future interlocutors of these individuals from the Russian side seem to have rather positive expectations.

(v) Among Russia’s major sensitivities in the international arena, special attention must be given to the US strategy and tactics with regard to the post-Soviet space. The most recent innovations in Russia’s foreign policy concept are unambiguous about prioritizing this dimension of Moscow’s external agenda. This includes both specific cases, such as Georgia or Ukraine, and general developments and influences in Russia’s immediate vicinity that used to be part of the USSR. From this perspective, Moscow would consider of utmost importance any signs of US assertiveness or, alternatively, cautiousness and restraint in this area. It is the latter which is expected from the forthcoming Obama administration. If this happens, one of the key irritants in bilateral relations will become considerably less relevant.

(vi) Finally, some analysts and observers in Moscow believe that there are considerable prospects for pushing forward the economic relationship between the two countries. Russia, according to this logic, has the possibility to mobilize huge oil- and gas-related financial resources to buy-in modern technologies and know-how from the United States. For the latter, the strong incentive would be to mobilize American business to meet this demand and thereby help to overcome the consequences of the recent economic crisis. Both countries will thus, allegedly, engage in a unique common mega-project of ‘new industrialization’. Such thinking, which may be visionary, but unrealistic – appears only on the margins of Russia’s debate on the future of relations with the United States, but it is still there.

It should be noted too, that the presented set of ‘positive’ arguments can be responded to with an alternative list warnings and alarmist expectations. For instance, some argue that:

  • there is high risk that the developments in Syria could undermine the prospects of cooperation between two countries;
  • the logic and plans of military modernization in both countries may mitigate against serious future arms control;
  • perceived threats to the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent from missile defence could allow the US to deliver a ‘decisive strike’ against Russia, so the latter needs to be prepared to prevent that, again with negative overall consequences for the future of arms control;
  • by emphasizing ‘soft power’ instead of traditional military means, the United States demonstrates its increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness rather than restraint and this will make it a more dangerous opponent of Russia;
  • after North Africa and the Near East, a possible further expansion of militant Islamism (instigated by the US or by the West in general) might be oriented towards Russia’s vicinities – principally the Caucasus and Central Asia, and so on.

It is obvious that some of these arguments are marginal but they can nonetheless be advocated by those who pretend to have professional expertise and who may accidentally have rather high positions in policy-making circles. Furthermore, the proponents of this ‘old thinking’ may not only believe it reflects mainstream Russian policy, but also aim at influencing that policy and making it more ‘firm’ and assertive. All of which only increases the urgency of promoting a cooperative agenda at the very early stage of the new phase in Russian-American relations.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.