"I certainly feel that the reset, broadly defined, has been a successful policy and a desirable policy. At the same time, however, there are a number of challenges, particularly in the coming year, that will really define its longer-term success," began Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest at a 10 January 2011 Kennan Institute lecture that focused on the challenges and promises of the Obama administration's approach towards engagement with Russia.

The attempt to improve relations with Russia is not necessarily unique to the Obama administration, Saunders noted; efforts made by the previous two administrations included resets that ultimately failed to live up to expectations. Though Saunders took a cautious approach in his analysis, he identified several promising developments of this administration's reset, and centered his remarks primarily on the political initiative's impact on U.S. foreign policy.

To the credit of the Obama administration, argued Saunders, the tone of the current dialogue with Russia is much improved. Saunders attributed this largely to an early decision by the administration to shift its focus away from NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Similarly, the administration approached missile defense decisions in Europe differently than its predecessors. These changes, welcomed by Moscow, served to improve the tone of the conversation more generally.

Secondly, Saunders cited Russian cooperation in Afghanistan as a positive factor, as well as Russia's support for another UN sanctions resolution on Iran. The latter was accompanied by Medvedev's decree that Russia would not sell the S-300 missile system to Iran, despite the presence of an existing a contract and Iran's partial payment for the (ultimately) undelivered weapons. Russia's support of the Iran sanctions "formalizes this earlier restraint," noted Saunders.

Saunders pointed to the "123 Agreement" as an even more important development that bodes well for a longer-term relationship between Russia and the U.S. The 123 Agreement is a mutual commitment to nuclear nonproliferation that spans political, civil and commercial cooperation. In contrast to the START Treaty, the 123 Agreement is forward-looking, creating a framework for future developments in U.S.-Russian civilian cooperation, and it allows both countries to expand the small constituency that seeks engagement. Furthermore, the 123 Agreement encourages Russia to make otherwise unpopular decisions, such as cancelling the sale of the S-300 missile system to Iran, by creating the potential for profitable new nuclear cooperation with the United States.
Lastly, Saunders cited the bilateral presidential commission as a major accomplishment, suggesting that it creates a forum for sustained dialogue and allows the two governments to talk across a broad range of issues.

Although much bodes well, Saunders identified several challenges to the reset, including Russia's perception that its role in Europe, particularly vis-à-vis the European security system, is fundamentally unsatisfactory. Saunders noted that, regardless of the U.S.-Russia relationship, Russia will try to have a role in Europe, either to leverage its own ideas in possibly unconstructive ways or work within a mutually agreed-upon pan-European system.

Likewise, interests diverge when it comes to Iran. The U.S.'s broader goal remains to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Russia has to consider its southern periphery, and Iran is the only country that is not an American ally, hosting American troops, or significantly increasing the quality of its relationship with the U.S. Instability in Iran—whether due to military action or sanctions—as well as American rapprochement with Iran would potentially compromise Russian interests.

Similarly, Russia's interest in the World Trade Organization poses challenges for a reset, largely because Russia ultimately has to sign an agreement with Georgia to enter the WTO. In light of the 2008 conflict between the two countries, this prospect could put the Obama administration in the awkward position of encouraging Georgia to agree to Russian accession, while signaling that the U.S. is not abandoning Georgia to Russia. Further complicating this, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has strong allies in Congress that could create tension in the Russia WTO accession process.

Several external factors must also be taken into account. Politically, next year is particularly decisive, revealing whether Putin or Medvedev runs for president, and providing a barometer of how the U.S. should continue its engagement with Russia. Russia has already revealed that its economy is a central factor in setting its expectations and American investment and trade will shape Russian views of the reset. European Union investments are currently about ten times those of the U.S., encouraging Russia to turn to the EU over the U.S.

Lastly, Saunders counseled that the name "reset" itself needs to change: the policy is no longer a simple, one-time event. The name requires a strategic rationale in order to signal that the policy has weight. Though this final task sounds simple, Saunders emphasized that it is actually quite critical in defining our relationship. Though there are many potential outcomes for this policy, Saunders' cautiously optimistic take on the reset—however it is labeled—bodes well for U.S.-Russian relations across many fronts.

By Lauren Crabtree
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Paul Saunders

    Executive Director, Center for the National Interest