"When President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S.-Russia relationship was at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War," said Samuel Charap, Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress. At a Kennan Institute talk on 05 April 2010, Charap described the subsequent "reset" between the two countries, assessed its achievements, and described the challenges ahead.

The U.S.-Russia relationship President Obama inherited from the Bush administration was minimal in both the quality and quantity of interaction between the two governments. Russia's war with Georgia even led the U.S. government to consider military strikes on the invading Russian forces.

However, allowing the post-Georgian war tensions to continue was not an option for the Obama administration, which Charap said came into office with a conviction that a better relationship "would be crucial for its attempts to make progress on top priorities, including counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and nuclear security." The reset was a "change in diplomatic tactics," including toning down confrontational rhetoric and emphasizing transparency in the bilateral relationship, increasing the number and breadth of issues discussed by the two governments, and not allowing disagreements or criticisms in some areas to impede progress in others ---while at the same time not ignoring those disagreements.

Charap described several achievements of Obama's Russia policy thus far. First and foremost was the New START treaty signed on 8 April 2010 by Obama and Russian President Medvedev, which restored the U.S.-Russia relationship on nuclear issues. Russia has also been cooperating with the U.S. on reigning in Iran's nuclear ambitions. On the latter count, Charap noted that the past year was in fact "a departure from the Russian track record" as the Kremlin came forward with a proposal to enrich uranium for Iran on its own territory in return for Tehran giving up its enrichment capacity. In addition, Russia is helping the U.S. stabilize Afghanistan by expediting supply trains through its territories (which carry one quarter of supplies bound for Afghanistan) and allowing overflights, among other measures. Also, Charap noted that Moscow's "habit to view U.S.-Russia relations as a zero-sum game is becoming less prominent." Evidence includes the fact that Russia played a constructive role in U.S. attempts to reconcile Turkey and Armenia, and that Ukraine's recent presidential elections did not devolve into a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.

However, according to Charap, there are significant challenges that have yet to be addressed by the reset. For example, Russia is still not complying with the cease-fire agreement that ended the war in Georgia. Charap also highlighted the new U.S. democracy promotion policy of engaging with Russian civil society directly, which remains in the "conceptual phase."

There have also been some missteps, particularly in the realm of strategic communications, according to Charap. First, the administration lost control over presenting the reset to the public, letting false narratives characterize it as a "Russia first" policy in the post-communist region and an abandonment of Russia's democratic activists. Second, Moscow received mixed messages from the U.S, with President Obama's pitch-perfect message during his visit to Moscow being undermined by statements made by other administration officials. Finally, Russia has been sending its own mixed messages concerning participation in the WTO. Although Russia has sought the United States' help in its accession, it has simultaneously been working to create a customs union among its neighbors that throws its WTO membership into doubt.

There are sure to be problems ahead, and a strategic partnership between the two countries remains a distant possibility. But thus far, concluded Charap, the achievements of the reset have outweighed the ongoing challenges and missteps.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Samuel Charap

    Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies