Resetting the Reset

Restart Button (photo modified) Original photo by U.S. Department of State "Restart Button" (photo modified)
Original photo by U.S. Department of State (CC)

The "reset button" has become the rather tedious metaphor for restoring U.S.-Russia relations; one cannot recollect a reference to the bilateral relationship under the Obama administration where the image has not been invoked.

Some months ago ("Reset Button Plus," March 2009), we took a preliminary (and somewhat skeptical) look at what "reset" entailed: might indeed we turn the clock back, and to what? Presumably, to the 1990s, which, we argued, offered at best a mixed bag of progress and missed opportunities in U.S.-Russia relations.

Alas, qualms about this reset business have proven justified. All appeared to begin well, with an apparently jovial first spring meeting in London between the two new presidents, followed by the Moscow July summit. This seemed to belie the old, cynical view of summit meetings as "talking the talk" rather than "walking the walk." A raft of crucial bilateral and multilateral issues were engaged, with earnests of intent for cooperation—including climate change, antiterrorism efforts, a favorable outcome in Afghanistan, and, most immediately, the resolve to replace and move beyond the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) before its expiration in December 2009.

Even here, however, a number of weighty items were left on the table, including the question of missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, a commitment of the Bush administration to which its successor apparently adheres. Other critical, clock-ticking arms control questions were not even addressed, principal among them the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which has been described as the "cornerstone" of European security, which provides for transparency and cooperation on troop and weapons movements, whose unraveling could set back decades of security on the continent, and over which there is sharp disagreement between Russia and NATO.

Then came a series of serious, largely symbolic, and wholly avoidable missteps: these might be titled "Mr. Biden Goes to Kiev (and Tbilisi)". The Vice President (operating on or off message) visited Ukraine and Georgia, and, after a few pro forma words of chastisement for the dysfunctional political leadership in Kiev, proceeded to reaffirm U.S. support for the eventual accession of these states into NATO (a view not immediately shared by many of our European allies,) and called on Russia to "remove its forces from your (South Ossetian and Abkhaz) territory." As an apparent coup de grace for the "reset" business, he then gave an interview in late July to the Wall Street Journal in which he said, essentially, that Russia's chronic economic weakness would mean that we would have our way with her—a thought that led President Medvedev's foreign policy advisor, understandably, not only to object but to question the consistency of the message from Washington.

So, one may ask, what now? Three things seem to be happening:

First, the Russians are mulling over the consequences and implications of the summit. It has been noted that, for Russia, it is not a facile exercise to decouple the various strands of arms control, as we would wish—thus the festering sore of missile defense, the impasse over CFE. Furthermore, as Alexander Khramchikhin, head of the analytical department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, recently observed in an article for the RIA Novosti newswire:

"As of today, Russia has a much weaker negotiating position on cuts in strategic nuclear weapons than the United States. Russia's strategic forces are rapidly decreasing because the delivery vehicles (ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles], SLBMs [Submarine-launched Ballistic Missiles], submarine missile cruisers and strategic bombers) with an expired service life are being retired at a rate which exceeds the construction of new delivery vehicles by several times. Worse, the majority of retired ICBMs…..and all SLBMs are MIRVED (multiple warhead vehicles), whereas all new ICBMs have only single warhead capacity…..[hence], considering the number of warheads and vehicles stored in munitions depots, the United States has already doubled its superiority over Russia, and this gap continues to increase."

For Moscow, therefore, "recollections in tranquility" may bring a realization that the "breakthrough" on strategic arms at the summit may have disproportionately favored the other side.

Second, on a broader geopolitical front, Russia has (so far vainly) sought to advance the discussion of a new Euro-Atlantic security architecture, beyond NATO. Concurrently, it pursues other diplomatic options, without U.S. participation or input. A recent meeting was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with Presidents Medvedev, Karzai, and Zardari on Russia/Afghanistan/Pakistan security issues. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping of Russia, China, and four Central Asian states (with Iran, India, and Pakistan at times as observer participants), maligned as irrelevant by the United States at its inception, has become a forum for discussion on the Afghan question, inter alia. Most recently, following the proclaimed success of The United States' negotiation of an extension of its base lease in the strategically important Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, Russia has just announced an agreement for a second Kyrgyz base of its own, to serve as a center for joint military training exercise.

Finally, the cosmetic "progress" of July in Moscow does not paper over the serious cracks in the various hotspots of the Eurasian space. Violence appears to be on the increase, and spreading, across the northern Caucasus, including the "dogs that have not barked" territories of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Continued stalemate or reversal of CFE could threaten the peace in the Balkans and in the tinder box of Nagorno-Karabakh. One year after the Russian-Georgian war, there is inflammatory rhetoric from both sides. As Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has noted: "I do not expect a war. But then, I did not expect a war last year." The wild card here, as before, is Georgian President Saakashvili, back to the wall in terms of domestic public opinion and perhaps emboldened by Vice President Biden's visit. As a Tbilisi taxi driver put it pointedly in a recent Financial Times article:"We must find a way of dealing with Russia. Unfortunately, our president is mad."

In summary, while one may not question the sincerity of the Obama administration in seeking a new or renewed dawn in U.S.-Russia relations, it is surely the case that the agenda is much more complex, the outcomes more uncertain, and the need to see things from the other side's perspective more compelling, than have been evidenced in post-summit behavior.

Read More: National Security, Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Foreign Policy, Russia, United States

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