The Russian Reset That Never Was

How palace intrigues in the Kremlin, the death of Qaddafi, and war in Ukraine ushered in a new era of mistrust between Russia and the United States under Obama.

This article is adapted from Mikhail Zygar’s new book, All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.

For the first two years of his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev’s main task was simply to be seen. Nobody in the world, or his own country, seemed to take him seriously, with the international media referring to him as the “handpicked successor” of Vladimir Putin, who had since become prime minister. Even when he sent troops into Georgia in August 2008, everyone said it was Putin’s war, as though Medvedev himself did not exist.

Though the war ended on favorable terms for Russia, it forced Medvedev’s team to grapple with a contradiction between its goals. Domestically, it was important to show that Medvedev was strong and independent and that he had declared war without consulting Putin. Yet, internationally it was more expedient to pin the war on Putin and portray Medvedev as a new type of Russian politician.

As Medvedev was deliberating on that problem in the Kremlin, Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, was sweeping to victory in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. After eight years of George W. Bush, Obama’s election campaign had come as a breath of fresh air, promising a new and more cooperative role for America in the world.


Medvedev immediately liked what he saw in his U.S. counterpart. And although he never said so, not even to those close to him, he clearly wanted to emulate Obama’s natural bond with the people who elected him. The charisma-challenged Russian’s advisors had always believed his boyish enthusiasm for gadgets could help him forge such a bond. His top aide had set up a video blog for him, plus Twitter and Facebook accounts, and bought him an iPhone and iPad that Medvedev didn’t need to pretend to enjoy using, although the effect was to make him seem more hipster than leader.

But in offering Moscow’s initial response to Obama’s election, Medvedev set his personal affinities aside, seeking instead to finally solve the dilemma of his own political identity. On Nov. 5, the day after the election results had been announced in the United States, Medvedev delivered his first address to the Russian parliament. In it was one tidbit successfully designed to receive attention in the West: a promise by the Russian president to place Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region, a Russian exclave surrounded by European Union countries. The dovish Obama had been given a Cold War welcome — and not from the hawkish Putin, but from the smiling Medvedev.

For its part, the new U.S. administration tried to offer the Kremlin assurances that the mutual resentment of the Bush era was history. Speaking in February 2009 at the Munich security conference, Vice President Joe Biden said Russia and the United States should press the “reset button on their relationship.” A month later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Geneva, where Clinton gave her counterpart a symbolic button they were to press together. Printed on the button was the word “reset” in both English and Russian. Unfortunately, the Russian version was misspelled, and instead of “reset” (perezagruzka) it said “overload” (peregruzka). Lavrov explained the mistake to his embarrassed colleague but still agreed to press it, joking that he would “try to prevent system overload in Russian-U.S. relations.”


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The Freudian slip was more symbolic than the trivial act of pressing the button. The United States and Russia still did not understand each other, did not speak the same language (literally and figuratively), and despite both sides mouthing that bygones were bygones, absolutely nothing had changed. Although the Obama administration was ready to renounce the role of global policeman and other excesses of the Bush era, it still harbored familiar old American prejudices against Russia. Medvedev, for his part, was never powerful enough to oversee a reset. And although Putin wanted a new relationship with the West, it was not the one Obama had in mind.

Obama first came to Moscow in July 2009. The biggest item on the agenda was a new agreement on the reduction of nuclear weapons, which was meant to symbolize the era of new relations. Obama met with Medvedev at the Kremlin, while Putin received him at Novo-Ogaryovo, where a sumptuous breakfast with caviar was laid out. Trying to make conversation, Obama began by asking rhetorically, “How did we get into this mess [in U.S.-Russian relations]?” In response, Putin gave him an hourlong lecture as to how precisely it had happened. Obama listened without interrupting.

As it happens, Obama felt no personal warmth for either Putin or Medvedev, despite all Medvedev’s attempts to be friends with his U.S. counterpart, as Putin and Bush had once been for a time. The White House’s open disdain for the new Russian leader did not help: Senior U.S. officials mocked Medvedev’s gadget mania in front of reporters, saying, “Maybe we won’t sign a deal. Maybe we’ll just send him a text message.”

Medvedev did desperately want to sign the nuclear arms deals, but diplomats on both sides could not settle the details. In the end, an agreement was finally signed, but it was an empty shell — more an opportunity for a photo shoot in front of Prague Castle in the Czech capital, where the signing took place, than a real arms control document. Russia wanted to bind the new agreement to a U.S. commitment not to deploy a missile defense shield in Europe. The Americans flatly refused. As a result, Moscow added and unilaterally signed an addendum to its side of the bargain, reserving the right to withdraw from the treaty if Washington went ahead with installing a shield in Europe.

President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev eat cheeseburgers at Ray's Hell Burger on June 24, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by MARTIN H. SIMON-Pool/Getty Images)

Nor did Medvedev and Obama improve their mutual chemistry during the Russian president’s visit to the United States in June 2010. Obama took Medvedev to his favorite eatery — Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, just outside Washington. Medvedev ordered a burger with cheddar, jalapeños, onions, and mushrooms, plus a Coke to wash it down, and Obama got one with cheddar, onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, plus iced tea; the two presidents split an order of fries. Photos taken of them made them look very chummy.

But the meeting did not go as amicably as the White House had planned. In the checkout line, Obama was unexpectedly greeted by a soldier recently returned from Iraq. Turning his back to Medvedev, Obama began an animated conversation with the veteran. The Russian president stood patiently, tray in hand, waiting to be noticed again.

Three days later, at the G-8 summit in Toronto, the U.S. government announced it had arrested a group of 10 Russian spies. Obama did not even mention it to Medvedev. There were no more illusions of friendship between the two presidents.

President Dmitry Medvedev arrives for his press conference with President Barack Obama after the signing ceremony of the Joint Understanding on Strategic Arms Reduction at the Kremlin on July 6, 2009. (Photo by ALEXANDER ALESHKIN/Epsilon/Getty Images)

There was less than a year to go before the next parliamentary election slated for late 2011, and Medvedev’s team was already targeting it. The plan was to use the election to help Medvedev build up his brand and secure his second term as president — and the campaign strategy was drawn up by none other than Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s onetime political strategist.

Surkov believed the key to Medvedev securing a second term was ensuring that Putin didn’t object. Medvedev had to demonstrate that he was better adapted to the realities of the new world than his predecessor. But, perhaps even more important, Medvedev needed a strong group of impassioned Russian followers who believed in him as a strong leader of their nation. It wasn’t just that Medvedev needed these people to vote for him — he also needed them as tangible proof of his legitimacy for Putin, his predecessor and would-be successor.

Surkov’s plans ran into an unexpected obstacle: His client, Medvedev, was still bent on creating an image of himself in Russia as a liberal, modern Western leader. Medvedev desperately wanted to be the Russian Obama — the epitome of the young, stylish leader. It was a dream that ignored Surkov’s assessment of the power dynamics in Moscow. A new crisis would soon prove Surkov right.

In March 2011, Medvedev and Obama had to reach an agreement on what to do about Libya. The two leaders had similar feelings. Both deeply disliked the Libyan regime and found Muammar al-Qaddafi repulsive. Both had met the Libyan leader and concluded that he had lost touch with reality. Even his son Saif al-Islam, a secular young man who frequently haunted fashionable Moscow nightclubs in the company of Russian oligarchs and models, was ashamed of his eccentric father, who never parted company with his traditional Bedouin tent, even on trips abroad. In the end, Obama and Medvedev agreed that they would not interfere with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to oust the Libyan leader.

Medvedev’s public speeches on the subject were meticulously prepared, but they were more concerned with Russia’s moral reputation than Libya’s internal politics, which were of little interest to him. His decision was all about cultivating the right image inside Russia as a decisive leader with progressive instincts. Who needed an old, senile Libyan dictator — especially one who, as attested by the files Medvedev had seen on Russian-Libyan cooperation, never paid his debts and cadged new weapons on credit while giving nothing in return. Medvedev cast aside the Russian Foreign Ministry’s pleas to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia abstained.

The next day Medvedev was surprised to see Putin on TV, speaking out on Libya. As prime minister, Putin rarely mentioned foreign policy. He ritually observed the constitutional norms, according to which foreign policy was the preserve of the head of state.

But visiting a missile factory in Votkinsk in central Russia, Putin described the U.N. resolution as a “medieval call for a crusade” and then delivered a thinly veiled reprimand to Medvedev live on air: “What concerns me most is not the armed intervention itself — armed conflicts are nothing new and will likely continue for a long time, unfortunately. My main concern is the light-mindedness with which decisions to use force are taken in international affairs these days.”

Medvedev was horrified. He really had blundered by not consulting Putin beforehand. But Putin’s outspokenness was an unforgivable humiliation and demanded a response. The question was whether to do it privately or publicly. After reading online comments openly mocking him, Medvedev decided not to call Putin. Instead, having examined his schedule, Medvedev decided that his response would come that same day — during a visit to the OMON, Russia’s special-purpose police unit. “It is entirely unacceptable to use expressions that effectively point the way to a clash of civilizations. The word ‘crusade,’ for instance. We must all remember that such language could make the situation even worse,” he said didactically into the camera.

Russia’s state news channels were aghast. What should they show? Could they possibly report that the “tandem” was split over Libya? TV bosses frantically rang the prime minister’s and president’s respective press secretaries. After a brief hesitation, Putin’s office replied: “The head of state is responsible for foreign policy, so only his point of view should be reflected in state news broadcasts. Prime Minister Putin’s statement should be forgotten.”

But experienced players in Medvedev’s camp knew that their man had made a huge mistake. Though Putin backed down, he did not forget.

Rebel fighters celebrate by firing weapons and holding the rebel flag over the charred remains of a Libyan army loyalist pickup truck bombed by NATO forces Apr. 10, 2011 on the outskirts of Ajdabiyah, Libya. (Photo by CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images)

As NATO’s intervention in Libya continued, Medvedev moved on, but Putin seethed. He had a personal acquaintance with Qaddafi, who had visited Moscow, pitched his Bedouin tent right inside the Kremlin, and accompanied Putin to a concert by French singer Mireille Mathieu. The two leaders also had a shared disdain for the West’s hypocrisy. Qaddafi’s talks with Putin had been solely about the Americans, whose true goal, Qaddafi said, was to kill the Libyan leader and establish world domination. Putin valued the Libyan leader’s praise for his own resistance to Washington.

For Putin, Medvedev’s decision not to veto the U.N.’s anti-Libyan resolution was an act of capitulation to Russia’s competitors in the West and thus an act of war against the Russian state. In the aftermath, Putin received a string of reports from the Foreign Ministry and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) about the diplomatic clout Russia stood to lose by betraying Qaddafi. Until then, no one in Putin’s entourage had dared to make any accusations against Medvedev, but now the taboo was lifted.

Over time, Putin became increasingly irate. When it came to Libya, he began to ignore that foreign policy was the prerogative of the president. “They [NATO] talked about a no-fly zone, so why are Gaddafi’s palaces being bombed every night? They say they don’t want to kill him, so why are they bombing him? What are they trying to do? Scare the mice?” he said on television.

When Qaddafi was finally killed in October 2011, Putin was apoplectic. Above all, he resented the perfidy of the West. Qaddafi’s problems only began, Putin believes, when he made concessions, confessed his sins, and paid compensation to the relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Sanctions were lifted, and he even attended the G-8 summit in 2009 at L’Aquila in Italy (as chairman of the African Union), where he shook hands with Obama. However, his obedience and tractability were soon to be punished. At the very moment when Qaddafi came in from the cold and put his trust in the West, he was stabbed in the back. When he was a pariah, no one had touched him. But as soon as he opened up, he was not only overthrown but also killed in the street like a mangy old cur.

Putin laid part of the blame for Qaddafi’s murder on Medvedev. The Russian president had been promised by his Western partners that they would simply establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the dictator from bombing rebel positions. And he had gullibly believed them. Even before the Libyan dictator’s death, Medvedev came to understand that his chances of a second term were dim. In September 2011, he announced that he planned to swap positions with Putin ahead of presidential elections slated for 2012.

Returning as president after a stint as prime minister, Vladimir Putin enters Andreyevsky Hall at the Great Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2012 for his inauguration ceremony. (Photo by ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/GettyImages)

An even steeper decline in U.S.-Russia relations was still to come in 2011. After Russia’s parliamentary elections in December, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow and other cities alleging voter fraud. The protests grabbed international headlines and earned encouraging comments by then-Secretary of State Clinton. In the Kremlin, conspiracies ran rampant that Washington was behind the demonstrations. The protests were quickly put down and their leaders sidelined. And when Putin returned as president the following year, the Kremlin’s messaging and policies became newly populist and anti-American.

What followed next was a sharp deterioration in already strained U.S.-Russia relations. The U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in December 2012, imposing targeted sanctions on various Russian government officials who, according to the State Department, were guilty of human rights violations. In response, Moscow issued a ban on U.S. citizens adopting Russian children. Relations were further sidelined in June 2013 when National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden boarded a flight in Hong Kong bound for Moscow. The episode ended with Putin granting asylum to Snowden and the Obama administration canceling a state visit to Moscow scheduled before the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg that year.

Whether or not the failed visit would have rescued Obama and Putin’s relationship and U.S.-Russian relations remains unclear. On the eve of the G-20 summit, differences over Syria between the two countries boiled over, with Putin describing U.S. allegations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against rebel fighters as nonsense before calling Secretary of State John Kerry a liar. On the sidelines of the summit, the Americans later made it clear to the other participants that Putin was not a team player. He was so unconstructive that Washington had given up on him. The United States was ready to wash its hands of Putin.

Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

But Putin believed the opposite — that the West was out to get him and to enfeeble Russia. The 2014 Sochi Olympics were meant to be a celebration of Russia’s international stature, but the Kremlin was consumed with the ongoing protests in Ukraine against its fickle client, President Viktor Yanukovych. Still in constant communication with the Ukrainian president, Putin was convinced that what was happening in Kiev was the result of a U.S.-led operation. Back in December 2013, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Sen. John McCain had visited Ukraine. Nuland handed out biscuits and sandwiches on Independence Square to both the protesters and the police while McCain spoke from a makeshift stage. After several dramatic and bloody clashes between police and protesters, Yanukovych eventually fled on Feb. 22, 2014.


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Putin was furious that Yanukovych had left so easily and that the Americans seemed to have helped in regime change next door. But the Russian president had other moves to make. The next day, pro-Russian demonstrations began in Crimea, and soon after masked Russian soldiers without insignia appeared and helped capture important buildings. A referendum on Crimean independence was announced on Feb. 27, and the next day a bill was introduced in the Russian parliament to facilitate the accession of new territories to the Russian Federation.

On March 4, Putin held a press conference at which he said Russia was not planning to annex Crimea, but the decision to annex the region had in fact already been made. Despite being under intense pressure from Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin decided that he could not give way. In any case, he didn’t think the West would impose serious sanctions, believing that the maximum punishment would be a boycott of the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi. Putin was ready to sacrifice the summit for the sake of Crimea and was sure that the West would not dare to go any further — and if it did, then not for very long. After the war in Georgia, Russia had also been threatened with isolation, but everything had soon been forgotten.

Crimea joined Russia on March 16. According to official figures, 96.77 percent of those voting were in favor. On March 18, at a ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin signed an agreement on the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation. The decision culminated on May 9, 2014, which was Victory Day. Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Sevastopol for a triumphant victory parade. The city was buzzing with chants of “Russia, Russia!” It did indeed feel like a victory.

But unlike Georgia, the responses to Crimea and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine were much more severe. The United States and the EU issued biting sectorial sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle. Internationally, Putin was now labeled a pariah. At the G-20 summit in Brisbane on Nov. 15-16, 2014, Western leaders took turns talking tough about Putin to journalists, and the Russian president found himself on the periphery of the photo op with other world leaders.

Putin was humiliated by the Australian reception and left early. But it marked the start of a new stage of Russian foreign policy. Used to being lauded abroad, Putin was now less keen to travel for fear of being treated like an outcast. Other Russian state officials, even liberal ones, followed his example, and soon contact with Western audiences was reduced to the absolute minimum. The unpleasant feeling of international isolation continued to worsen for the Kremlin.

The signing of the Iran nuclear deal between major powers took place in Vienna in May 2015 and put an end to Tehran’s economic and political isolation. Much of the world rejoiced, except for Russia. The Kremlin had an ominous feeling that this was the last negotiation process that would involve Russia as a great power. The Kremlin racked its brain. Other than Ukraine, what else would the world be willing to discuss with Moscow? The answer was Syria. On Sept. 30, 2015, Russia intervened militarily under the pretext of fighting terrorism but also to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin may have found itself under increasing economic pressure from low oil prices and sanctions, but Russia’s military foray into the Middle East meant it couldn’t be ignored.

Moscow had felt the full force of isolation from the West. Yet the Kremlin’s response was strange and slightly irrational. It spoke of the common grief that had united the country. Those officials who had hoped that Russia’s isolation would be short-lived began to philosophize about the conditions under which Russia and the West could be reconciled. “You’ll see. There’ll be something more terrible. Something so terrible we can’t even imagine it. Something like a third world war,” a top Russian official said in private. “It will reconcile us with the Americans.”

Nearly eight years after the beginning of the failed reset with the Obama administration, the Kremlin now waited for another opportunity to mend ties with Washington.

Top Image: Pete Garceau/AFP/Getty Images

Mikhail Zygar is a Russian journalist and the former editor in chief of the only independent TV station in Russia, TV Rain (Dozhd). His most recent book is All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin. (@zygaro)