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What's behind the ginned-up crisis in U.S.-Russia relations?

By , a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.
US President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (C) outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo on July 7, 2009. Obama praised Vladimir Putin's "extraordinary work" as Russia's president and now prime minister, but admitted their two nations still do not agree on everything. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

Storm clouds are gathering over what has been a signature shift in U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama: the "reset" of relations with Russia. The usual suspects, from the Weekly Standard to the Washington Times to hawkish cold warriors in Congress, see recent news as vindication of their argument that the reset represents dangerous appeasement of a relentless foe on the march, an adversary with which it would be folly to cooperate in any way.

Some of the headlines, including a supposedly Kremlin-ordered attack on a U.S. Embassy, leave one with the impression that the U.S.-Russia relationship is on the brink of a return to the state of near confrontation that Obama inherited.

Reset-bashing is, of course, nothing new; critics of the policy have seized on every faint hint of Russian hostility abroad and revanchism at home to denounce Obama for his weakness and naivete. But much of the recently published analysis is deeply misleading. Some of the reset-bashers seem so blinded by their rage that they simply refuse to acknowledge its successes and have conveniently forgotten how disastrous the alternative — an antagonistic U.S.-Russia relationship — is for U.S. national interests and Russia’s own development.

Let’s first be clear about what the reset is not. It is not a secret weapon to vaporize all those in the Russian security establishment who deeply distrust U.S. intentions and at times act on that mistrust. It is also not a reset of Russia’s political system, some sort of magic wand for effecting instantaneous democratization.

What it was, and remains, is an effort to work with Russia on key national security priorities where U.S. and Russian interests overlap, while not hesitating to push back on disagreements with the Kremlin at the same time. The idea is that engagement, by opening up channels of communication and diminishing antagonism, should — over time — allow Washington to at least influence problematic Russian behavior and open up more space in Russia’s tightly orchestrated domestic politics.

At the core of the reset policy is a determination that "linkage" — making bilateral cooperation on a given issue dependent on a given country’s behavior on other matters — is an ineffective instrument when dealing with states that are neither ally nor enemy. That’s especially true for great powers like China and Russia, which, whether Americans like it or not, play a major role on global issues that matter. This diplomatic tactic is not new; it harks back to George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and his approach to the Soviet Union. In his memoirs, Shultz writes:

[M]ost Soviet experts liked to link all aspects of our Soviet relationship together and try to use the presumed Soviet desire for progress in one area, such as trade, as leverage to achieve progress in another…. I felt that we must be prepared to fight out each issue on its own terms, and that we would be better off if we thought of the relationship that way…. We must not ignore Soviet actions that trouble us. On the contrary, we need to respond forcefully…. [L]inkage is a tactical question; the strategic reality of leverage comes from creating facts in support of our overall design.

There is a case to be made that finding any sort of accommodation with the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, which often exhibited an expansionist, ideological foreign policy that ran directly counter to U.S. interests and featured a political system that by definition trampled on basic human rights and freedoms, was impossible. Russia in 2011, though at times a bully in its neighborhood and far from a consolidated democracy, has neither of these traits. But Shultz’s assertion that "a policy which dictates that nothing can be solved until everything is solved" will both make it harder to achieve U.S. objectives and will cede initiative to the other side is equally valid today.

Shultz’s view had many detractors at the time, and recent events have brought the same linkage brigades out of the woodwork. And their laundry list of alleged Russian offenses all lead to the same conclusion: Kill the reset. What’s striking is that the severity of the supposed sins committed by Moscow pale in comparison with the benefits the reset has provided to the United States, from facilitating U.S. operations in Afghanistan to the creation of a strong international consensus to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

Indeed, the main claims gleefully put forth by the reset-bashers — rehashing Russian spy games involving U.S. officials, retelling an improbable story about Moscow’s complicity in a string of bombings last year in Georgia, and trumpeting the Kremlin’s negative reaction to proposed legislation in the Senate — seem to reflect a continuing desire of many in Washington to deep-six U.S.-Russia relations, not to address the issues at hand.

One source of consternation, especially on Capitol Hill, was a series of reports in the Washington Times regarding a number of explosions in Georgia last year. The Georgian authorities say there were about a dozen small explosions in all, one of which claimed the life of an elderly woman. One of the bombs went off in a cemetery about 200 feet from the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi in September 2010. In December of that year, the Georgian authorities publicly fingered a Russian military intelligence officer they said was serving in Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian region that Russia recognizes as an independent state, as the mastermind behind the plots.

Bombs exploding near U.S. government buildings overseas should certainly not be taken lightly. As we have learned in recent days through the Times‘s own reporting, the Obama administration did in fact take the matter seriously, producing an intelligence community assessment and raising the matter at the highest levels with the Russian and Georgian governments.

But, as is the case with many violent incidents in the South Caucasus, this episode remains murky. The Georgians have signals intelligence and a taped confession from the bomber that they say link the incidents to the Russian officer; the Russians reply that the officer has not been in Abkhazia since early 2010 and therefore couldn’t be behind the explosions. And even the Georgians are not claiming to have documentation of a Moscow-hatched plot to blow up the embassy — they suspect the officer of acting on his own and want Russia to hand him over for questioning.

But the Washington Times saw no need for nuance, or factual accuracy for that matter: "Russian agent linked to U.S. Embassy blast" the July 21 headline claimed. The "news" came from a Georgian official telling the reporter what he and his government have been claiming publicly for nine months. When a U.S. official subsequently leaked to the same reporter his reading (later disputed) of a classified U.S. report on the incidents, the hyperbole only intensified: "U.S. Intelligence Confirms: Russia Bombed U.S. Embassy," proclaimed a Weekly Standard headline.

The bottom line is that, as other, subsequent descriptions of the U.S. report show, there isn’t adequate information to prove much of anything conclusively about this disturbing case, and certainly not a Kremlin-hatched bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi.

The Georgia bombings story came at the same time as the leak of an administration note to Congress about the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). While expressing its shared "concerns about the tragic death of Sergey Magnitskiy," a Russian lawyer who died in pretrial detention after putting forth corruption allegations, the administration noted the numerous steps that have been taken to address this issue, including, through the use of existing legal authority, denial of U.S. visas to a number of individuals associated with Magnitsky’s apparent murder. The note raised a number of concerns about the bill, ranging from its unnecessary duplication of this authority to the vagueness of its provisions.

It also relayed Russian officials’ reactions: "Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes." In other words, if the United States is going to put Russia in the category of these brutal theocracies and dictatorships, Russia will have to reconsider its current support for sanctions against them. The rogue-state label might also harm Washington’s efforts to diversify its supply lines for the war effort in Afghanistan.

Washington’s reset-bashers once again pounced. "Moscows Sanctions TitforTat Threatens to Kill theReset" read one headline, while one proponent of the legislation was quoted as saying, "Are we really resetting relations with this country if they are threatening to halt international cooperation in order to allow their torturers and murders to travel to America?"

Let’s be clear: The officials suspected of Magnitsky’s apparent murder would not have been granted visas to the United States. It’s just that many such visa bans are not made public, or if they are, are done so in accordance with regulations that apply globally. The legislation in question does much more than that: It essentially demands that the State Department regularly and publicly "name and shame" officials in a single country for a single category of individual crimes. Russia goes into the same category as a number of countries against which the United States maintains unilateral sanctions, such as Belarus, Burma, Iran, Libya, and Syria.

Fortunately, Russia, for all its political dysfunction, is a far more open place than any of these countries. And perhaps as a result, the Magnitsky legislation is unlikely to have a positive impact on human rights in Russia. Even the possibility of its adoption has fundamentally altered the nature of the conversation in Moscow: Instead of responding to their citizens’ outrage about the crime, Russian politicians are busy fulminating about the U.S. bill and have even introduced their own legislation to sanction U.S. officials.

"While I support President Obama’s efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations, we must not abandon American values in the process," Cardin has written. More often, however, the proponents of his bill present a false choice between the reset and promoting Russian democracy, when in fact their proposals are likely to worsen the very "fortress Russia" mentality that was so closely associated with the undoing of pluralism in politics there from 2003 to 2008. Those propounding the "embassy bombing" story present an equally false choice.

Both groups seem more interested in antagonizing Moscow than in promoting democracy and human rights in Russia, supporting Georgia, or protecting U.S. diplomats. As one neoconservative Washington Post blogger wrote, "Russia’s human rights atrocities, campaign of intimidation and even violence haven’t caused the administration to rethink its policy of appeasement, dressed up as ‘reset.’" To paraphrase: On the basis of a murky bombing incident in a cemetery 200 feet from a U.S. Embassy, Russian officials’ taking umbrage at being put in a box with genocidaires, and the behavior of some spooks who haven’t gotten the memo about the end of the Cold War, the administration should put an end to its attempts to engage Russia.

That might be a sensible argument if engagement had not produced results, from mutual strategic arms reductions and the inspections to verify them to cooperation on reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions to unprecedented logistical support for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan. (It is hard to imagine any U.S. president deciding to take out Osama bin Laden, thus risking U.S. supply lines through Pakistan, if the Northern Distribution Network going through Russia was not functional, to say nothing of the air-transit deal that has seen more than 170,000 Americans fly over Russian airspace to Afghanistan — both products of the reset.)

And those are just the best-known examples. In June, an unprecedented NATO-Russia joint anti-terrorism operation in Poland intercepted a simulated hijacked plane. Nearly 900 kg of Russian and U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium have been repatriated from third countries since 2009, in accordance with joint U.S.-Russia plans. Bilateral military-to-military engagement is also proceeding apace: Altogether, 67 events, exchanges, exercises, and consultations between the U.S. and Russian militaries are scheduled for this year. Going forward, any missile-defense cooperation between the United States and Russia would involve the Russians sharing data from their radar station in Azerbaijan, a state that borders Iran, whose missile threat the U.S. system is aimed at repelling.

The question the reset-bashers need to answer is: What’s their alternative, and how will it more effectively serve U.S. interests and values? Given the utter failure of the Bush administration’s finger-wagging-and-isolating approach, their calls for a return to that policy are simply not credible.

In the meantime, they might contemplate the implications of what they’re advocating, whether it’s undoing the international consensus on Iran’s nuclear program, endangering U.S. troops in Afghanistan, allowing more nuclear material to remain insecure, or ensuring that Russian politics becomes even more closed and monolithic. There’s more at stake here than just giving Obama a bloody nose in an election season.

Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.

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