Is it Possible to Press the Reset Button on U.S.-Russian Relations?


Among the Obama administration’s many promised changes to the United States’ strategic posture is an intention to “press the reset button” on U.S.-Russian relations.
Many Russia analysts have argued that while a strategic partnership may be impossible, Washington and Moscow have enough mutual interests to develop, in Nikolas Gvosdev’s words, “a relationship characterized by a major pragmatic approach to resolving issues and preventing disagreements from flaring up into full-scale crises.”
Similarly, Dmitri Simes, Thomas Graham and the Committee on U.S. Policy Toward Russia separately argue (here, here, and here) that Moscow and Washington share a number of interests – the most important of which include non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and preventing a nuclear Iran.
The key, according to this view, is to elevate these issues to the top of the bilateral agenda and engage in sustained, high-level negotiations.
The corollary to this position is that the deterioration of relations can be blamed in part on the Bush administration’s failure to accommodate Russian interests on issues that are of vital national interest to Moscow, but of less import to Washington. American interests would be better served if Washington stopped lecturing Moscow about democracy, encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and attempting to install missile defense sites in Eastern Europe.
The Obama administration seems to agree that this kind of horse trading and agenda-setting can lead to productive compromise and cooperation. The first evidence of this was President Obama’s secret letter to Moscow in February, which hinted that he would be willing to suspend missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe in exchange for cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue.
But the jury is still out on whether a more pragmatic, interest-based relationship is possible.
Obama’s overture has been unsuccessful thus far, as evidenced most recently by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s response to a question on this subject at a recent forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Lavrov questioned the connection between the missile defense installations and the Iranian nuclear threat and said that “[Missile defense bases in Poland and Czech Republic]…would have nothing to do with Iranian potential threat [sic] but would have [a] very immediate effect on the Russian strategic arsenals in the European part of the Russian Federation.”
Council on Foreign Relations scholar Stephen Sestanovich, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues essentially that Washington cannot achieve better relations with the government in Moscow because Moscow believes that “Russia’s relations with the United States (and the West in general) [are] inherently unequal and conflictual and that Russia would better serve its interests if it followed its own course.”
According to this view, Russia defines its national security strategy primarily as anti-American and in zero-sum terms, thereby precluding meaningful cooperation.
For instance, Russia may have an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – but will not work with Washington to prevent that outcome because it is more threatened by a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that would limit Russian influence in Tehran and threaten Moscow’s energy security strategy.
Writing in the Moscow Times after returning from a recent trip to Moscow, Amitai Etzioni also questions whether pressing the reset button is possible due to Russia and the United States’ vastly different priorities.
Clearly the Obama administration is willing to talk nicely toward Moscow – but whether it will be able to achieve significant policy breakthroughs remains an open question.
— Ben Katcher


18 comments on “Is it Possible to Press the Reset Button on U.S.-Russian Relations?

  1. JohnH says:

    “And most of the public knows it, too.” You are making a huge assumption, considering that a significant portion of the public still thinks that we are occupying Iraq for one of the many phony reasons offered up by Bush. And this misconception continues years after Bush’s justifications were all shown to be phony.
    If everyone already knew it, why was it news when Greenspan said in his book that the Iraq war was about oil? If everyone already knew it, why did anyone even notice? Answer–it was newsworthy because Greenspan said something he was not supposed to have said. He showed ‘poor form’ for letting the cat out of the bag–momentarily, of course, since it has been buried again. (Interestingly, that was the only moment Steve Clemons could acknowledge that Iraq was about oil.)
    How many people, even those who read this blog, do you think believe that US-Iranian relations are driven primarily by energy related issues, not the nuclear weapons program, which was shown to be a red herring by the Iran NIE last year and by Mohamed El Baradei? Why is the Iranian nuclear program still an issue at all? Answer–because it serves as a justification, weak as it is factually, for the US to pressure Iran on that other, unmentioned issue, the issue that has been at the heart of US/British -Iranian relations for a century.


  2. Curious says:

    Short answer: If LUGAR is talking about it, it isn’t hidden.
    Somewhat longer answer: I think it’s taken for granted every time
    someone says, “the United State’s vital interests abroad.” At least
    that’s what I hear, and I’m not terribly smart or connected.
    And most of the public knows it, too. It’s just that they want the oil
    and other energy sources as much as the elites do. They want or
    need cheap fuel. They want or need cheap products made from
    petroleum. It’s sort of the background to these discussions.


  3. JohnH says:

    “Who’s hiding that fact?” If it’s not hidden, why do the experts here at TWN not even make passing reference to American energy security and how it affects foreign policy? Do you really think that TWN experts think that their reader are all so brilliant as so connect the dots between Cheney’s critique of Russian democracy, NATO expansion, Russian-Iranian ties and American ambitions for energy security?
    Why was oil explicitly excluded as a possible causus belli in Iraq even after all the phony causes were publicly debunked? Why was energy security front and center in an overseas speech about NATO’s mission by Lugar but not mentioned at all here or in the corrupt, corporate media? Why didn’t Russia’s making energy security the top agenda item at the St. Petersburg G-8 get wide media coverage, instead of being buried?
    Fact is, the government, media and think tanks like TWN purposely refuse to connect the dots between American ambitions for energy security and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and tensions with Iran. They actively promote the idea to the public that there are other reasons for our involvement. In the past, they used to serve up phony reasons. Now they don’t even bother with that, except for Iran, where we have yet to engage militarily.
    Yes, I make the same point frequently, because it is important to point out that things are not as presented–some things are being conveniently hidden in plain sight. Facts are sometimes created by constant repetition, others are quickly erased from public awareness if well buried long enough.


  4. Curious says:

    I dunno JohnH. I’ve been reading your comments for some time
    now and about 75% of them seem (to me at least) to make this
    same, fairly commonsensical point.
    Who doesn’t know that our foreign policy is about energy? Who’s
    hiding that fact? In fact, oil has been almost the sole guiding
    principle behind the West’s dealings in the ME for over a century. I
    read this all the time in books, newspapers, and magazines.
    So I’m not sure what “freeing” is really required.


  5. JohnH says:

    As I understand it, that agreement is like a memo of understanding. We have to wait for the final deal. Then it has to withstand US efforts to sabotage it, like severing all or parts of Baluchistan from Pakistan. IPI shuts out the US, which is anathema to Washington, which sees its role as providing “protection” to any energy production or distribution entity–an offer most can’t refuse.
    The whole silent, reptilian war would make quite a good soap opera (think Dallas), or even a captivating news series–if the corrupt, corporate media weren’t convinced that their livelihoods could be jeopardized if they breathed a word about it.
    Thank goodness for independent journalists like Pepe Escobar!


  6. Sand says:

    Sorry POA — you beat me to it. I just remembered that JohnH was bringing up the geopolitics of our ME friends, or enemies? I didn’t read your post.


  7. Sand says:

    JohnH — have you caught this: intriguing
    from Antiwar:
    “…A silent, reptilian war had been going on for years between the US-favored Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and its rival, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the “peace pipeline”. This past weekend, a winner emerged. And it’s none of the above: instead, it’s the 2,100-kilometer, US$7.5 billion IP (the Iran-Pakistan pipeline), with no India attached…”
    Hopefully Scott Horton will have Pepe Escobar on his pod-show.
    Iran certainly seems pretty rational to me.


  8. JohnH says:

    It does make you wonder how so many “experts” are so easily cowed. And who is wielding the cattle prod.


  9. PissedOffAmerican says:

    It seems Asia Times Online is one of the few online “news” sites that has regular contributers that are willing to underscore the place oil has in the scheme of things regarding America’s foreign policies. Pepe Escobar seems to “get it”, for example.
    And not to be shrill about Klein, but as I have often mentioned, in my opinion she shoulda got the Pulitzer for her article “Bagdad Year Zero”. It really underscored the unspoken motives.
    It seems there are just certain areas of discussion that are taboo to touch if you are a Washington insider or pundit. I’d love to see an honest intelligent debate about the insanely improbable story we have been handed about the events of 9/11/01. And an open and honest discussion about the corrosive and debillitating effect the leech nation of Israel has on the security of the United States would be nice too.


  10. JohnH says:

    Don Bacon–What’s to confuse? Those that post at the head of the page (the experts, assuming the role of bloggers here) have a narrowly constrained set of viewpoints they can express. Call it the “conventional wisdom,” if you will. This “expert opinion” is obviously not free to discuss a whole host of subjects, including America’s ambitions surrounding energy security, or even honestly speculate on what animates American involvement in the Persian Gulf, Central and South Asia.
    The opinions of those that post below the lead article, like you and me (commenters not bloggers), those of us whose opinions are easily ignored or dismissed, have a lot of freedom here.
    My hope is that the experts–those that post at the head of the page–start engaging in open and
    honest discussion about what truly animates US decision makers. Then I won’t have to waste my time pointing out their willful ignorance of critical issues. Instead, we debate the wisdom of trying to dominate Pipelinestan.


  11. Don Bacon says:

    JohnH, you confuse me.
    * Our posts here are open, but they are just so many opinions.(What do you expect?)
    * You have yet to see TWN bloggers talk about energy. (Not true. I mentioned oil imperialism above, and I’m sure that others have too. As you said: “for those of us who post here that day arrived long ago”)
    So you’re wrong, we’re not “free at last.” We were born free.


  12. JohnH says:

    Don Bacon–yes, for those of us who post here that day arrived long ago. But our posts are just so many opinions.
    In the years that I have been responding to TWN blogs, I have yet to see TWN bloggers talk about the role of energy in US policy, or discuss, even referencing in passing, what drives US policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, etc.
    Maybe now they will be free at last to openly and honestly discuss what animates US decision makers. After all, they’re the ones playing the role of experts here.
    And I’ll guarantee you that what motivates the US is not WMDs or human rights in Iraq!


  13. Don Bacon says:

    JohnH, that day arrived long ago. How did you miss it?


  14. JohnH says:

    It will be a great day indeed, when sites like this one can openly discuss the great issues driving foreign policy. When this happens, maybe we’ll dub this “honesty in foreign policy.”
    I look forward to this site moving beyond the narrow confines of talking points posing as issues, created for public consumption by hasbara, American public diplomacy and their hired pens in “think” tanks and the media.
    The costs of dishonesty in foreign policy are enormous–war with no clear cause in Iraq, an occupation of Afghanistan with any particular mission, and a possible war with Iran whose likely justification has already been debunked by those closest to the situation (Mohamed El Baradei and the US intelligence community’s own NIE on Iran).
    This dishonesty will one day come to haunt all Americans, since the doubling of defense expenditures for Bush’s wars without cause coincided with the massive budget deficits that looted the Social Security Trust Fund.


  15. Ben Katcher says:

    Thanks for reading and posting a comment.
    You are correct to raise the issue of energy security – an important interest for both Russia and the United States.
    I promise to post more on that issue soon.


  16. JohnH says:

    Not surprising, Ben Katcher cannot manage to name the elephant in the middle of the room when it comes to Russian relations with the West. (Not to be hard on Ben; nobody else in the Washington Foreign Policy Mob can talk about it either.) Hint–it topped the agenda set by Moscow for the G-8 Summit held in St. Petersburg in 2006. But that particular agenda item was largely ignored but the invitees. Bush’s “massage” of Merkel got the headlines.
    The Issue? Energy security, of course. The West wants guaranteed supply. Russia wants guaranteed demand, which conflicts directly with the US’ liberalized energy trading system.
    The US wants to bring back the buyer’s market of the 1990’s, which almost bankrupt the oil suppliers. Russia is determined not to face bankruptcy again.
    So, Ben. Is that issue really so difficult to talk about?
    Agreed that “lecturing Moscow about democracy, encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and attempting to install missile defense sites in Eastern Europe” are not helpful. And it’s a sure thing that such shenanigans won’t make Moscow any more disposed to hand over its massive energy resources to the West for a pittance.


  17. Don Bacon says:

    Certainly the US and Russia share a number of interests, but they also share major strategic and economic differences beyond missiles and Kosovo. The US has been attempting to extend its sphere of military and economic interest into Russia’s sphere from Ukraine, with which the US military has had fifteen years of combined operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, to oil-rich Kazakhstan, where the US may be trying to foment another color revolution, and to the other ‘Stans which fit into the US ‘Silk Road’ economic (oil) imperialism of which Afghanistan is a peripheral part.
    The above photograph of the haughty Obama and the cool Medvedev characterizes this divide rather well, doesn’t it.


  18. WigWag says:

    In his otherwise enlightening post, Ben Katcher doesn’t even mention the biggest stick that the Bush Administration poked in the eye of the Russians, the recognition of Kosovo in February, 2008. Bush made so many wrong-headed and destructive foreign policy decisions that the recognition of Kosovo is frequently overlooked as the colossal mistake that it was; but it was a huge error in judgment.
    About the only thing that can be said in defense of Bush on this matter is that he was following the lead of the Europeans. Of course, the Europeans were wrong about things almost as often as Bush was, himself.
    If the Obama Administration wants to show the Russians that it is interested in engaging them, it has to prove that it takes Russian interests seriously. It will take far more than a willingness to delay the deployment its anti-missile shield in former Warsaw Pact nations. The Russian objection to these missiles while real, is mostly rhetorical. The Russians are not stupid; they understand that these anti-missile missiles are no threat to their ICBMs and they probably also know that the system is a lemon that won’t work.
    Obama could prove his seriousness about working with the Russians by reversing the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. So far only three of the permanent member states on the UN Security Council have recognized Kosovo’s independence and only about 60 of the 192 UN member states have granted Kosovo official recognition. Withdrawing U.S. recognition is a step that Russia would deeply appreciate and take very seriously.
    Even short of withdrawing recognition, the United States could come out in support of allowing Serbia to annex Northern Kosovo. Unlike the rest of Kosovo, Northern Kosovo is almost entirely Serb and the Serbs effectively control this part of the “country” anyway. Most importantly, virtually everyone in Northern Kosovo wants to remain part of Serbia and not join with the Albanian (and Muslim) citizens in the rest of Kosovo. Moscow favors the annexation of Northern Kosovo by Serbia and United States support of the Russian position would be immensely helpful in securing Russian support on matters of significant strategic concern to the United States.


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