President Barack Obama promised to "reset" the United States' relationship with Russia in order to cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest. In March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov with a mock "reset" button. The big red button was labeled "Reset" in English and with what the State Department thought was the Russian equivalent of "reset." Unfortunately, the Russian translation was incorrect.
In spite of the faux pas, the White House is committed to working with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to improve US-Russian relations, which suffered during the second term of the George W. Bush Administration. Early in his Administration, President Bush said he had "looked into the soul" of former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who he jokingly referred to as "Pooty-Poot". However, Bush increasingly found his foreign policy at odds with Russian policies. President Obama is trying to connect with President Medvedev on matters of policy as well as at a personal level.
Seeds of Discontent
The end of the Cold War brought friendly relationships between the Clinton Administration and Boris Yeltsin's Russia in the mid-1990s. However, Putin's ascendance to the Russian Presidency in December 1999 brought renewed foreign policy vigor, rebuilding of the military and new economic influence due to Russia's energy-based wealth. Moscow began asserting itself in breakaway provinces such as Chechnya, threatening to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and sending the Russian Navy into the North Atlantic. As Russia re-asserted itself, policy differences with America arose.
Russia and the US found themselves on opposite sides of the fence in the war in Kosovo (1998-1999). The US and the majority of Europeans advocated independence for the Kosovars, while Russia supported its traditional allies, the Serbs, in Kosovo. The US and Russia were again on opposite sides in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. The US supported the pro-Europe, pro-democracy governments of Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko. Moscow saw US support for these leaders as a public rejection of pro-Russian governments.
The Russians viewed the continued expansion of NATO as moving military front-lines closer to Moscow. An expanding NATO combined with the Bush Administration's insistence on European-based missile defense seemed to contradict America's friendly rhetoric. The Bush Administration insisted that European-based missile interceptors were directed toward terrorist regimes, not Russia. However, then-President Putin was unequivocal that a missile defense program was viewed as an aggressive act by Moscow.
The Russia-US relationship may have reached its highest level of post-Cold War tension during the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Georgia is an ally of the US and an applicant for NATO membership. During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) made public appearances with President Saakashvili of Georgia. The Russian Army invaded Georgia in support of two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, seeking to secede from Georgia. Cooler heads prevailed and the Russians have since withdrawn, but tensions over Georgia remain high.
Where We Stand Now
Since the Russia-Georgia conflict, the US has made a concerted effort to reduce tensions and engage Russia. President Obama visited Moscow in July 2009 and mentioned that President Medvedev was a modern leader while Prime Minister Putin had "one foot in the present and one foot in the past."
The Obama visit was an opening to discuss US-Russian agreements pertaining to arms control, joint military exercises and military transit through Russia to Afghanistan. Both nations seem eager to "dial down" the rancor that had been building over the past five to 10 years. The global economic crisis and reduction in energy prices have severely affected the Russian economy and perhaps have made Russia more open to cooperation with the United States.
Actions the US Can Take to Reset the Relationship
What actions can the Obama Administration take to reset relations with Russia? First, the US must continue to support democracy and free markets in the former Soviet Union but can not base its support on individual leaders. Presidents Saakashvili and Yushchenko have lost some of their international luster and have developed considerable political opposition at home. For example, in Moldova, a pro-Western government coalition has replaced pro-Moscow President Vladimir Voronin. The United States Government has been careful not to gloat over the change, which would antagonize the Soviets. Instead, the US has let the European Union take the lead on Moldova.
The Obama Administration's emphasis on greater coordination with America's allies and greater engagement with Russia will be viewed favorably by the Russians. Slowing NATO expansion will also assist the relationship with Russia. While there would be a great amount of symbolism if countries like Georgia and Ukraine joined NATO, their membership would add little to NATO's capability to project military power or its political cohesion. Yet their accession to NATO would cause tension with Moscow.
In order to reset the relationship, the US must not appease Russia but refrain from antagonizing the Russians unnecessarily. Russia and the US can build on their common interests. Both countries want to reduce the threat of terrorism, ensure nuclear weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, stop piracy on the seas, and increase global financial transparency. The Obama Administration is reportedly negotiating with Russia to cancel the missile defense program in exchange for Russia's assistance in halting Iran's nuclear program. This type of flexibility and willingness to engage Russia will help reset the relationship.