Two separate, but ultimately related events at the end of December, the ratification of the new START Treaty by the US Senate and the conviction of former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, reflected the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of the so-called reset relationship between Washington and Moscow in 2010. On the one hand, approval of the START treaty helped authenticate an improved bilateral relationship based on cooperation and shared interests. On the other hand, domestic politics in both countries was critical to treaty passage: Senate ratification was only ensured by crossover support from a small group of Republican senators who put aside their party’s traditional wariness of Russia’s intentions abroad and growing authoritarianism at home. Had the Khordorkhovsky decision not been postponed until after the Senate treaty vote (Indeed, some skeptics suggested that the risk of alienating wavering US senators was the reason for the verdict’s delay), the treaty might well have been defeated. In short, domestic considerations are central to the reset of US-Russia relations and are likely to ensure that the gains of the reset will remain limited and fragile.
The gains in improved ties have been substantial, if in some areas not as significant as the Obama Administration insists. They include Russian agreement to a new set of sanctions against Iran and cancellation of Moscow’s controversial agreement to provide the S-300 missile system to Tehran, relaunch of the NATO-Russia Council and Moscow’s support for the Northern Distribution Network, which enables supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan to transit Russian territory.
Underlying the US approach is a “theory” of reset, as presidential advisor Michael McFaul told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment recently. It that holds that the US and Russia share some common interests, that engagement can be beneficial for both sides, and that interaction must be on a wide variety of issues. In practice, the US views Russia less for what it is, or can be, than as an instrument to help Washington deal with other priorities such as nuclear nonproliferation and radical Islamic terrorism.
Moscow seeks economic modernization – a response to the ravages of the global economic crisis -- to establish itself as a great power in a multipolar world. It also seeks a friendly neighborhood in the former Soviet space and, above all, regime preservation. US global influence is waning and the Obama Administration is relatively weak, Russian leaders are convinced. For the moment, therefore, Russia believes it can benefit from a more cooperative relationship with the United States, but insists that it be on its own terms: there will be no further expansion of NATO or of major Western influence in the Near Abroad. Above all, the Kremlin will not tolerate the genuine democratization of the regime.
The Obama Administration has argued that in seeking increased engagement that it still takes the promotion of democracy and human rights seriously and that these topics are central in discussions between Washington and Moscow. Moreover, the US has continued to support opposition figures and the development of civil society. There is good reason to believe, however, the Russian leaders do not take these efforts seriously. The Obama administration has explicitly disavowed a linkage that would punish Russian misbehavior in one area by withholding concessions in another. Russian leaders have ramped up repression in recent days, apparently confident that Washington will not likely risk the reset gains of the past year.
The US and Russia both need a dialogue on security issues and that process is likely to continue. But upcoming domestic political developments in both countries probably will quickly show the limits to the recent thaw. First, the newly empowered Republicans in the US Congress are likely to raise concerns about the Kremlin’s human rights record and be reluctant to approve new arms control initiatives; second, any reshuffle in the Kremlin’s ruling tandem could set back ties – the Obama Administration’s open courtship of President Medvedev has hurt the Russian President in some quarters and his tenure in office beyond 2012 is by no means assured; finally, the election of a Republican US President in 2012 is likely to slow momentum. “When it comes to Russia,” several Central and Easter European leaders wrote President Obama in 2009, “our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy.”
Dr. Donald N. Jensen is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University. From 2002-2008 he was Director of Research at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington, DC, where he was responsible for directing that organization's analytical work on more than twenty countries in East Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and South Asia. He writes extensively on political, economic, and security developments in Russia nd Ukraine and is a frequent commentator on major US and international media.