A Durable Reset

Three years ago this month, after Russian military forces invaded Georgia, the U.S.-Russia relationship reached its lowest point, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Bush administration virtually froze relations for its last five months in the White House.

President Obama and his team took office in January 2009 and soon signaled their interest in improving ties with Moscow. The main reasons are well known: need of Russian support in trying to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program; increasing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan; and return to a more multilateral approach in nuclear arms control and security.

Despite considerable skepticism in Moscow and Washington, Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have made significant progress in restoring the bilateral relationship with important achievements on all the issues above as well as a number of others.

In recent months, however, critical voices in both countries have grown louder about prospects for further rapprochement. Skeptics point to disagreements over missile defense, the revolutionary events in the Middle East, the seemingly never-ending negotiations over Russia’s W.T.O. accession and other issues. Some analysts and political figures in both countries also cite the possibility that Vladimir Putin will return as Russia’s president in 2012 as a threat to future cooperation.

But unlike the two previous U.S.-Russian honeymoons, both of which ended in disappointment — in 1991-1992 after the emergence of the new Russia, and in 2001-2002 after 9/11 — the current warming trend should be more sustainable.

To understand why, it is instructive to understand the Russian motivations for improved ties with Washington, and also the likely impact of Russian presidential elections on ties with Washington.

Until the autumn of 2008, the mainstream Russian view — expounded by Putin — was of the United States in decline as economic troubles mounted and setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq sapped U.S. power. By contrast, Russia was on the rise, and a truly multipolar world was emerging.

The unexpected impact of the global economic crisis on Russia in the fall of 2008 struck a blow to this narrative, revealing as it did the vulnerability of Russia’s economic growth. The Russian economy was the hardest hit of all members of the Group of 20, and this sobering event led to renewed efforts to integrate with the West in order to advance the modernization of Russia.

Russian elites also began to acknowledge that the balance of global economic and political power may not be shifting in their favor. After the dust settled from the fall of 2008, Moscow viewed China as having come out on top. After years of focusing on the United States as the source of dangers to Russia, Moscow has become increasingly concerned about the rapid development of China and its growing influence in Russia, especially in Siberia and the Far East, and in Central Asia, the Caspian and other areas that Medvedev has dubbed Russia’s “zone of privileged interests.”

The Russian elections will not fundamentally alter these challenges for Russia. History suggests that American policies will be a far greater factor than Russian politics in shaping Russian policies toward the United States.

The Russian assessment of America’s power and role in the world did not change because Medvedev replaced Putin as president; it changed because of the global economic crisis and Washington’s policies.

Vladimir Putin, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not deeply opposed to U.S. interests. In 2001-2002, Putin pursued his own version of a “reset” in American-Russian relations, and his foreign-policy orientation at that time was at least as amenable to U.S. interests as Medvedev’s today.

True, Russia’s confidence strengthened as its economy recovered, but Moscow’s disappointment with the policies of the George W. Bush administration was a greater factor in Putin’s increasing willingness to oppose Washington. So the possibility of Putin becoming president again — and I have no idea whether he will — should not be feared in Washington.

The Russians are aware of the current fiscal problems in the United States, and the questions about whether the U.S. political system is capable of managing them. They are also closely watching whether the United States has the political commitment to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Russian elites are unsure about the durability of U.S. power, but they have seen the United States renew itself in the wake of global and economic setbacks in the past.

If the United States succeeds in making progress on these fronts and, more importantly, continues to pursue pragmatic policies that accommodate some of Russia’s core interests, the current trend toward cooperation will continue. Or, to put it another way, we are the critical variable in this equation.

By Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is co-editor of Russia after the Global Economic Crisis.

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