European Council on Foreign Relations

US-Russia: from reset to upset

A year or so ago, while doing research for the post-BRIC Russia report, I spoke to a US diplomat dealing with Russia about the ‘reset’. He sounded (naturally) very positive about its effectiveness. Among its two key achievements he mentioned cooperation on transit to Afghanistan and  halt of anti-US propaganda on the Kremlin-controlled media and a subsequent decrease in anti-Americanism in Russia society.

With Putin’s return, protests in Russia and the US elections all talk is now about the end of the reset. In the last few months anti-American propaganda made forceful comeback in the Russian media. Many thought it was just electioneering in the run-up to the March presidential elections. But that was too optimistic, it seems. In the last few weeks things became even more heated. NTV, a Russian TV channel owned by Gazprom Media, has been following US ambassador Michael McFaul pretty much everywhere, which lead to an outburst of indignation from McFaul, as well as accusations that his phone (and therefore calendar) has been hacked, and a formal US State Department protest over the harassment of the US ambassador. McFaul also claimed that upon arrival to Moscow last January he felt like he was back in the Cold War and that ’it has been surprising that there was so much anti-Americanism, because we thought we were building a different kind of relationship, and it makes some people nervous that it could so quickly and reflexively go back to – in terms of rhetoric – an era that we thought was behind us’. Then, on a different occasion, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called McFaul ‘arrogant’. In other words, the dismantlement of what was considered a key achivement of the reset is well advanced.  

For all the controversies around McFaul – the truth is that he was not just the architect of the ‘reset'. He was one of the strongest voices for engagement with Russia in the US and in this sense if not Russia’s best friend, then surely Russia’s best ‘friendly non-adversary’. Back in autumn his designation as ambassador was even delayed for a few months by a hawkish Republican Senator over fears that Obama’s administration might be sharing classified information with Russia. Attacking McFaul only strengthens a much more adversarial approach to Russia in the US, not least by the likes of Mitt Romney who called Russia ‘number one geopolitical foe’.

Despite increasingly heated language the other key achievement of the reset might see better times. In the fog of pre-election anti-Americanism last January, Russia and the US actually agreed on a NATO logistics base (the Russian government prefers to call it a ‘transit centre’) in Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, which apparently has a convenient 5-km runway at its airport and can receive large aircraft. Of course, a NATO base in Lenin’s birthplace was too much a symbolic blow to Russian communists who staged protests under slogans like ‘while we disarmed, NATO encircled us‘. The base might move somewhere else in the end, but the bigger point is that for all the trading of niceties on the political level, actual cooperation between Russia and the US on some concrete issues continues.

Overall, US-Russia relations seem to be marked for now by increased public jibes on the surface coupled with (still continuing) cooperation on some substantial issues. Such two-level games serve domestic purposes, without seriously endangering Russian foreign policy goals. On the one hand anti-American rhetoric is convenient and useful in stirring-up patriotic sentiment, shoring up support for a gradually weakening Putin, and discrediting the opposition. On the other hand, a Russia has no interest in stirring new disputes with the US, while also benefiting economically and politically from some forms of cooperation on Afghanistan.

The same goes for the US. Some pre-election posturing by Obama’s administration can be helpful, as long as cooperation on concrete issues continues. The danger is that such a situation can be quite unstable, and the experience of the last two decades shows how easily jibes can disrupt cooperation. The reset has not turned into a cold peace yet, but has been clearly upset.

The article first appeared on EUobserver

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