President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; image via Flickr

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; image via Flickr

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, U.S.-Russian relations were strained and delicate. Arms control agreements had all but disintegrated and acrimonious conflict had largely displaced cooperation. Indeed several observers, including Mikhail Gorbachev, even went so far as to proclaim the emergence of a new Cold War.

Although this assessment may have been an overstatement, tensions between the two former superpowers were certainly running high, particularly during George W. Bush’s presidency. During Bush’s first term, for instance, the United States consistently worked to expand NATO to Russia’s borders, completely disregarding George H.W. Bush’s promise to Gorbachev that NATO would refrain from expanding eastward beyond a reunited Germany. With the U.S. decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in June 2002, cooperation further deteriorated. The ABM treaty was commonly regarded as the foundation of Russia’s nuclear security. As both Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have stated, the Kremlin felt “deceived and betrayed.”

When President Obama stepped into the fold, however, Washington seemed finally prepared to acknowledge the gravity of its waning partnership with Russia. In 2009, Obama announced that “resetting” relations with Moscow was a foreign policy priority.

As noted in a report by the World Politics Review, the clearest improvement in U.S.-Russian relations thus far has been one of tone. Rhetoric between Moscow and Washington is far more conciliatory. Presidents Medvedev and Obama meet with one another frequently and seem to relish the opportunity to present themselves as two like-minded statesmen — young leaders who both represent change for their countries. When questioned on the status of the “reset,” each has stressed its success and cited their personal friendship as evidence. In a rare interview with the Financial Times in June of this year, Medvedev took care to avow that U.S.-Russian relations have improved tremendously, owing to the efforts of Obama and his administration. He noted that it was easy to work with Obama, and added that “…no one wishes the re-election of Barack Obama as U.S. president as I do.” During a subsequent interview with the state television channel Rossiya 24 on July 7th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov further proclaimed that the United States had become “a more reliable, more predictable, more consistent partner.”

Improvements, however, have not simply been in tone. Thus far, Obama and Medvedev have approved a new START treaty on nuclear disarmament and tentatively agreed to cooperate on a ballistic missile shield, one of the major sources of friction between the two powers during the Bush era. Following Minister Lavrov’s visit to Washington in July, the White House also announced that Obama strongly supported Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). In a rare move for a non-head of state, Lavrov met with President Obama, taking up a wide range of issues from adoption rights to Libya and Syria. The result was an accord, signed with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, providing guarantees and safeguards on adoption, including the provision that only agencies approved by Moscow would be permitted to arrange adoptions in Russia. This deal follows the outcry that ensued after a woman from Tennessee “returned” her adopted seven year-old son on a flight back to Russia by himself. During the same visit, Clinton and Lavrov also recommitted the United States and Russia to the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and signed an agreement to streamline visa regulations.

Nevertheless, Obama’s reset has been limited. Key issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion remain vexing, and politicians on both sides have challenged closer ties. There is still time, however, for the Obama administration to hit the reset button with conviction.

Who Is Betraying Whom?

One of the major factors restricting progress in U.S.-Russian relations is the strength of political opposition in Washington and Moscow. In Washington, numerous Republican lawmakers in Congress have critiqued the administration’s outreach to Medvedev, continually raising concerns over Russia’s track record on human rights’ abuses. Following a hearing on the administration’s reset policy, for instance, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that “Russia is taking on a more Stalin-era appearance every day…The administration must end its string of concessions to the regime in Moscow, which have not resulted in increased cooperation with U.S.” Recently, Ros-Lehtinen has further vowed to block Russia’s entry into the WTO. Her sentiments have been echoed by American neo-cold warriors, who repeatedly assail Obama’s reset, sometimes even likening it to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. As historian Stephen F. Cohen argues in an article in The Nation, in the absence of a “countervailing pro-Russia lobby or a significant U.S.-Russian economic relationship to buffer the reset,” Obama’s policies toward Russia are extremely vulnerable to attacks.

In Moscow, proponents of the reset have faced equally stringent criticism. Drawing on traditional Cold War tropes, many regard Obama’s outreach as a ploy to intervene further in Russian affairs. Even President Medvedev has been labeled “an enemy” of the state for his amity toward Washington. His decision in March to refrain from vetoing NATO’s air attacks on Libya, for instance, has been viewed, notably by Russia’s former ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, as a crucial “betrayal” of Russian interests. Indeed, open American backing for Medvedev’s candidacy in the 2012 presidential elections has actually revived resentment over U.S. interference in Russia’s internal affairs. A few personal friendships in the Kremlin, in other words, do not translate into broad support within Russia’s policy class.

Although Medvedev has not quite “betrayed” Russian interests, cooperation has not occurred on a level platform. In fact, one of the major glitches of the reset is that it proceeds on a selective basis. Although the United States gained support from the Kremlin on Iran and the war in Afghanistan (Russia provided intelligence aid, arms to the Northern Alliance, and over-flight rights for coalition forces), Obama has not yielded on two of Moscow’s most detested American policies: NATO expansion to the East and locating missile defense sites within Russia’s proximity. This lack of balance has not only worked to inflame resentment toward the reset, but has also undermined Medvedev’s authority. Even Putin has proclaimed publicly, “So, where is this reset?”

Lavrov himself also seems to acknowledge that several key issues, including the projected deployment of a NATO missile defense shield in Europe, continue to plague U.S.-Russian relations. In July, NATO rejected Russia’s preference for a so-called sector missile defense network in Europe that would have allowed a particular country or group of countries to hold responsibility for each specific missile defense sector. The Russian proposal is now off the agenda of Russian-NATO negotiations. Although Russia favors a joint system of missile defense with full-scale interoperability, NATO insists on two independent systems that could exchange information. NATO has further refused to provide any legally binding guarantees that its missile defense systems will not be directed against Russia.

Moscow, by contrast, maintains that such a guarantee is the only way to prevent a new arms race. Indeed, Lavrov has publicly remarked that a compromise on this issue, which now seems very unlikely, would “switch their [U.S.-Russian] relations over to a level of allies.” In this respect, Obama has hitherto undermined his own goal of negotiating a reduction of Russia’s short-range tactical nuclear weapons. As Medvedev has warned, if the missile defense conflict is not resolved on an absolutely equal basis, “another escalation of the arms race” could be expected.

What Is To Be Done?

To resolve, or at least reduce, this conflict the Obama administration should work with the Kremlin to forge a new model for missile defense cooperation. An initial, and critical, step in this process could be to provide Moscow with legal guarantees that a European missile defense system will not be aimed against Russia. Such a move is likely to prevent Moscow from taking retaliatory measures, such as developing its nuclear capabilities. Medvedev has previously stated that Russia will expand its nuclear strike potential and withdraw from the new START disarmament agreement if a U.S. or NATO missile defense shield threatens its security. Speaking in May at a news conference, Medvedev made his position toward this issue strikingly apparent: “It is clear that the missile defence shield is directed at blocking the strategic capabilities of certain states…I understand that other states mentioned [Iran, and North Korea] do not have nuclear potential comparable with Russia and are unlikely to achieve it in the coming years…So, it is directed against us.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has also insisted that Russia cannot, under any circumstances, form a strong sphere of influence in former Soviet territories. This is another fundamental dispute underlying the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. As stated by Cohen, “…we must [now] ask what Moscow actually wants in former Soviet republics…for the Kremlin leadership…their essential demand is an absence of pro-American military bases and government in those neighboring countries. In a word, that they not become members of NATO. Is that unreasonable?” Countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are part of Russia’s very own security neighborhood. As in Bush’s era, the traditional “ghost” restricting a radical improvement in U.S.-Russian relations is the twelve-year expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders.

In an effort to resolve this geopolitical conflict, Washington should work to honor Bush’s broken promise – that Western forces not be stationed in any new NATO countries east of Germany. In return, Moscow could reaffirm its recognition of the sovereignty of former Soviet republics. Such a compromise would not only reduce Russia’s anxieties over NATO’s missile defense programs in Eastern Europe but also confirm Obama’s commitment to the reset without impinging upon NATO’s guarantee of collective security for all member states.

To open up a real partnership, the United States and Russia should further seize and build on opportunities for economic cooperation. Although major American companies, including Cisco, Chevron, and General Electric, have signed significant deals in Russia, trade and investment ties are far from optimal. As noted by Vice President Joe Biden “the value of goods that cross our borders with Canada and Mexico every few days exceeds the annual value of our trade with Russia.” In 2010, Russia was only the 37th largest export market for the United States, and bilateral trade amounted to merely $23.5 billion, approximately 3.8 percent of Russia’s total external trade. Establishing firmer economic ties could serve as a means of facilitating greater cooperation on security and nuclear fronts. To improve economic ties, a critical step would be the removal of the the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold-War era law that bound trade relations with Russia to emigration rights for religious minorities.

As President Obama has clarified, however, the success of future bilateral trade is dependent on Russia’s ability to modernize its economy and liberalize politically. The case of Sergei Magnitsky, the 37-year-old tax lawyer who exposed the largest recorded tax fraud in Russian history but was imprisoned and beaten to death for his honesty, serves as a critical reminder of the commercial corruption that plagues Russia today. Although many aspects of Magnitsky’’s case, as well as those of human rights activists who have also lost their lives attempting to expose injustices, are tricky to pursue in the United States, there are steps that can be taken. As the reset of bilateral relations proceeds, Washington must hold firm on the issue of Russia’s human rights violations and continue to enforce the visa blacklist of Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s torture and death. As argued by Ben Cardin (D-MD), co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Washington must first make clear that “respect for human rights advances better relations and increased trade, and they are not distant goals.”

As Obama continues to tout the “successful” reset of relations with Russia as his major foreign policy achievement, 2012 may yet be marked by more concrete transformations in the U.S.-Russian relationship. The challenge now is to avoid Cold War mentalities and not allow bilateral relations to be trapped in a holding pattern.

Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.