U.S.-Russia relations stagnate as Obama’s ‘reset’ policy falters

by Takashi Kitazume

Staff Writer

The relationship between the United States and Russia is stalled for now as the “reset” efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration over the past four years have failed to develop enough momentum to move the bilateral ties forward, according to an expert from a U.S. think tank.

Obama will have another chance to seek better ties with Russia if he gets re-elected in November, but he will have to create a strategy different from his previous emphasis on arms control, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest.

Saunders gave a lecture July 31 in Tokyo organized by the Keizai Koho Center under the title, “Is the U.S.-Russia ‘reset’ finished?”

Since 2009, the Obama administration has sought to “reset” the U.S. relations with Russia that had been on a downward path after the Iraq war. Obama’s emphasis on arms control talks with Russia produced some achievements, including the new START arms reduction treaty, and the tone of bilateral discussions improved substantially at one point, Saunders said.

After four years, however, the relationship has moved from the “reset” to a state where “neither Washington or Moscow appears prepared to make a special effort” to move the bilateral ties forward, Saunders said. “They will go through the motions, but not necessarily try very hard” to sustain the relationship, he said.

One of the problems in the Obama administration’s dealings with Russia, he said, was that its “near-sighted” attempt to cultivate ties with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev damaged the relationship with Vladimir Putin, who continued to influence Russian policy and eventually came back as president earlier this year.

Putin’s return to the presidency “demonstrated the weakness of the U.S.-Russia relations,” he said. The Obama administration’s earlier approach to Medvedev and its criticism of the Russian election that brought Putin back to power fed a perception in Russia that the U.S. was trying to work against Putin’s return, he noted. “And now the U.S. still needs to deal with Putin . . . who is a bit irritated with the way the U.S. was dealing with Medvedev.”

Another problem with the “reset” policy was Obama’s overemphasis on arms control, Saunders said. “After the end of the Cold War and any serious concern in the U.S. about a Russian nuclear attack, arms control is not really an issue that you can use to build a domestic political base to support a policy of engagement with Russia,” he said.

As the tone of the bilateral ties turned for the worse, differences between Washington and Moscow grew and became more visible, he noted. While Russia earlier abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote to pave the way for NATO intervention in Libya, now it has hardened its resistance to U.N. action on Syria, Saunders said.

The November presidential election in the U.S. will provide an opportunity for a fresh start in bilateral ties, but only if both sides want it, Saunders said.

If Obama is elected for a second term, he will have another chance to pursue better ties with Russia, “but he will need a different strategy because I don’t think his administration’s previous focus on arms control is very promising,” Saunders said.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, has so far used fairly tough rhetoric toward Russia, calling Russia America’s “No.?1 geopolitical rival.” But that sort of rhetoric — apparently reflective of the widespread frustration particularly among Republicans with Russia’s relations with Iran, Syria and others — should not be taken too literally, given Romney’s record of being a pragmatic leader as former Massachusetts governor and businessman, Saunders said.