US-Russia “reset” buckles under new Putin term


The new Mr Nyet: Putin has rebuffed Washington's attempt to move relations beyond a zero-sum game.


Alexei Nikolsky

MOSCOW, Russia — Most Russians believe the self-styled liberal Dmitry Medvedev was a weak president who was merely carrying out the bidding of his powerful mentor Vladimir Putin during his recent time in the Kremlin.

So it caught some by surprise when the Kremlin’s foreign policy became distinctly rougher and tougher in the six months since Putin returned to his old job.

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the “reset” of relations between Russia and the United States.

However, that doesn’t mean the reset has been an unmitigated failure. Launched when relations were at Cold War lows as part of the White House’s drive to exercise “smart power” in the world, it delivered a number of agreements and better communication between diplomats.

Not that you’d be able to tell that from recent rhetoric from Moscow. Lawmakers lashed out against the United States in October, criticizing Americans for waterboarding, abusing children and “anti-Russian propaganda” during the first parliamentary hearing on US human rights abuses since the Soviet collapse.

That came soon after Moscow snubbed Washington by evicting USAID from Russia and announcing it would end a bilateral program to dismantle and safeguard Russian weapons of nuclear weapons sponsored by the United States for 20 years.

Analysts say Putin has breathed a chill into relations with the United States as part of his drive to position Russia as a lone “Eurasian” power that looks neither West nor East.

Putin’s first trip abroad as a third-term president was to Belarus, known in the West as the last dictatorship in Europe. At the same time, Putin appeared to snub Obama by refusing to attend the G-8 Summit in the United States even after it had been rescheduled to accommodate him.

Some say that’s little different from even the best days under Medvedev.

“There wasn’t a reset under Medvedev either,” said Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments. “Yes, there were some nice words, but what was actually done? Not much. It’s clear that there was not a reset from the very beginning. It was PR that Obama needed and that Medvedev needed.”

The Obama Administration has touted the ratification of the START nuclear arms reduction treaty in April 2010 as a breakthrough in relations only a few years after their lows under George W. Bush and Putin.

Washington has also won a transit airbase on Russian territory and over-flight rights to support the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, as well as cooperation, if grudging, over sanctions against Iran.

In return, Washington successfully lobbied for Russia to join the World Trade Organization this year after a 19-year accession bid.

Alexander Konovalov, President of the Institute of Strategic Analysis, said cooperation benefits both sides on a “whole list of issues that can only be tackled with cooperation,” such as international terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, drug trafficking and organized crime.

“There are so many transnational problems and threats in common for us [Russia] and the United States, NATO and European Union that we are historically doomed to be — if not allies — then at least sensible partners,” Konovalov said.

The reset established several bilateral commissions, part of an attempt to encourage closer relations on various levels of diplomatic and other bureaucracy. Foreign policy establishment figures in both countries have complained that ties were largely cut under the Bush Administration except at the highest levels.

Nevertheless, longstanding irritants continued to dominate relations. Topping the list is Russia’s anger over American ambitions for a missile defense system in Europe Moscow says would unhinge global security by undermining its nuclear deterrent.

The impasse on Syria is another.

Analysts say picking fights enables Russia to be seen as more important in the world. “Putin is clearly pursuing a course of increasing Russia’s influence,” Mikhevey says, “and Americans do not like that.”

James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based Chatham House, says Washington’s leadership in the world makes it Russia’s “number one target.”

“There is such a weight of disagreement between Russia and the West on key foreign policy issues and America still takes the lead on whether it's NATO, Syria or missile defense.”

Moscow was also outraged by a US Senate panel's approval of a bill that would impose travel bans against Russian officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer whose death in 2009 in pre-trial detention drew widespread condemnation.

Washington’s criticism of heavy-handed police responses to protests also prompted Putin to hint darkly that foreign powers are meddling in Russian affairs.

Nixey says the West is a “convenient punching bag” for Russia. “Some things just don’t change,” he said. “If you do have protests, why not blame them on darker foreign elements?”

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“The administration in Russia is pretty anti-Western right now. Since he returned to the presidency, Putin has really taken a distinct turn not to the East, but certainly away from the West, toward this lone power idea – of Russia as an independent center of power that is not Eastern or Western.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a recent interview with the Kommersant business daily that the reset has run its course.

“If we take into account the computer origins of the term reset then it’s immediately clear that it cannot go on for ever,” Lavrov said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a reset, but a program failure. It’s not worth obsessing over the names of this or that stage. It’s better to think how we can develop relations — or to return again to the lexicon of computer specialists, update the software.”

Mikheyev said relations could unravel further, especially if Americans elect Mitt Romney, who has called Russia the US “no.1 geopolitical foe.”