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3.3. The “Reset” of U.S.-Russia Relations


In 2008, Presidential elections took place not only in Russia, but also in the United States, since in November 2008 American people voted to decide who would be the next President. According to the election results the next head of the state became Barack Obama, a candidate representing the Democratic Party, which in turn might bring new opportunities and challenges to U.S.-Russia relations.250 The Obama Administration did initiate change in bilateral relations, thus, at a meeting in Geneva on March 6, 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov a symbolic button with a label “reset”, implying the beginning of a new phase in relations between the two countries.251

The “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations implied a number of mutual concessions that would meet interests of both countries.252 Thomas Graham, former assistant to the President, noted that the “reset” was intended to demonstrate Washington’s readiness to respect Moscow’s interests, though the Obama administration has never explicitly mentioned this.253 According to Graham the White House planned to take a number of steps, in particular, to agree on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, to reconsider the deployment of its missile defense in Europe, to lower relations with Ukraine and Georgia and to soften U.S. criticism of Russia’s internal policies.254 The United States also planned to complete the work on Russia’s accession to the WTO.255 In exchange Washington hoped to receive Russia’s support for Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world and U.S. policy toward Iran and Afghanistan.256 Considering previously mentioned concessions offered by Washington, the Russian side later emphasized that the current administration was willing to foster U.S.-Russia cooperation “based on the principles of equality and mutual respect”.257

In order to further develop U.S.-Russia relations in July 2009, the two countries agreed to establish the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which included eighteen working groups covering fields such as counterterrorism, military cooperation, health, agriculture, economic relations, energy and others,258 thus, integrating various bilateral contacts into a single mechanism.259 The Obama administration’s priority list included the issue of disarmament, thereby, the arms control working group was also established in the framework of the Bilateral Presidential Commission.260 It is worth mentioning that the arms control issue has traditionally been one of the main elements in relations between Russia and the United States, which is why the necessity to reach a new arms reduction treaty could become the basis for starting a constructive dialogue between the two countries. The START treaty was expiring in December 2009, which impelled the two parties to start drafting a new agreement to further reduce strategic offensive weapons.261 Thus, in April 2010, the two presidents signed the New START treaty that obliged the two parties to make a 30 percent cut in their strategic nuclear warheads reaching 1,550 over seven years and to halve the amount of devices such as submarines, missiles and bombers delivering these nuclear warheads.262 It should be mentioned that compared to the previous bilateral treaties the New START treaty has ensured the largest nuclear arms reduction. Moreover, the new treaty also envisaged verification measures such as on-site inspections and data exchanges.263 The treaty has been ratified by both countries and entered into force in February 2011.264

As previously mentioned, the arms control issue has traditionally been one of the most important aspects in relations between the two countries and this is why the necessity to forge a new treaty could be used as an opportunity to improve deteriorated bilateral relations, since a new agreement would benefit both sides. However, the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations was not limited to the signing of a new arms reduction treaty. Thereby, “the Obama administration re-submitted the U.S.-Russian agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation to Congress on May 10, 2010”.265 This agreement, which was initially signed in 2008 and withdrawn from Congress after the 2008 conflict, enabled “the two countries to trade nuclear materials, technology and services”.266 Moreover, in September 2009, Obama announced abandonment of “Pentagon plan to build a missile defence system in Europe”,267 which earlier became one of the major controversies in U.S.-Russia relations, and emphasized that instead the United States “would focus on the threat posed by Iran's short- and medium-range missiles, rather than its intercontinental nuclear capabilities”.268 However, Russia’s reaction was rather cautious, since Moscow was uncertain if the new system would pose a lesser threat to its national security.269

After the reset policy was launched in 2009, the two countries made a breakthrough in a number of other controversial issues. Thus, in 2010, Russia that once continuously opposed tighter sanctions against Iran finally supported UNSC resolution 1929 authorizing stricter sanctions against Iran.270 The sanctions were targeted at Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, as well as conventional military, which was a major issue for Russia that had arms contracts with Iran.271 In exchange, the Obama administration lifted previously imposed sanctions against Russian arms producing companies.272 Additionally, Russia along with the United States endorsed UNSC resolution 1874 that was produced as a response to the nuclear test conducted by North Korea.273 Another major issue after the “reset” was joint efforts on Afghanistan, in particular, Russia has provided air and ground transit through its territory, thus, “over 2,200 flights, over 379,000 military personnel, and over 45,000 containers of cargo have been transported through Russia in support of operations in Afghanistan”.274 The two countries also renewed bilateral military cooperation and have collaborated on anti-piracy operations.275

The United States and Russia also sought to foster bilateral economic cooperation. In 2010, the two countries made a major breakthrough, in particular, they managed to resolve a number of controversies and to reach an agreement that led to Russia’s accession to the WTO.276 This became a significant achievement for Russia, especially taking into account that Russia had been pursuing WTO membership since the 1990s. Moreover, the completion of WTO negotiations with the United States removed an additional irritating element in relations between the two countries. At the same time, prior to the completion of WTO talks Russia and the United States agreed on the removal of obstacles to resume previously banned exports of U.S. poultry to Russia.277 As previously mentioned, in 2006 Russia and the United states failed to reach agreement on Russia’s accession to the WTO, which led to Russia’s decision to ban meat imports from certain U.S. companies, which indicates to what extent such issues are politicized in relations between the two countries.

The United States and Russia have also managed to foster cooperation in areas such as democracy and human rights.278 The Obama administration sought ways to support Medvedev’s initiative to eliminate corruption and strengthen the rule of law, thus, the two countries not only organized discussions between U.S. and Russian officials, but Obama administration officials have also met with Russian civil society and increased “financial support through the [...] USAID for programs on rule of law, human rights, civil society, media, and political processes”.279 Nevertheless, Washington continued to criticize human rights violations and political regime in Russia.280

Even though since 2009 the two countries have managed to improve bilateral relations substantially and to achieve a breakthrough on a number of issues, already in 2011 there were some disturbing developments that could negatively affect U.S.-Russia relations. Thus, for example, the two parties did not resolve controversies in regard to U.S. and NATO plans to establish a missile defense in Europe. Although U.S. and NATO partners assured Russia that the future missile defense system would not be targeted against them, Russian officials perceived those assurances skeptically.281 The Russian side asked to provide an objective evidence base to ensure that the new missile system would not undermine nuclear parity with Russia, yet the United States did not react to this initiative accordingly.282 The missile defense issue was still not solved by 2012 either, which is why Russian officials declared that “the Russian side would have to take corresponding measures to ensure their own security”.283

In the field of “contacts between people” the two countries made some progress, as in 2011 the United States and Russia agreed to ease visa regime for tourists and businessmen, however Russian officials emphasized unsatisfactory situation in regard to the rights of adopted Russian children and extremely rigid sentences for Russian citizens convicted in the U.S. on doubtful grounds.284 Thus, Russian officials asserted that a Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko and a businessmen Victor Bout were convicted with multiple violations of international law but the litigation itself was biased and politicized.285 Another factor that had a negative impact on bilateral relations was 2011-2012 Presidential elections, for example, the main republican candidate Mitt Romney declared that Russia is “America’s geopolitical enemy number one”.286

Even though in 2012 there was a positive development in U.S.-Russia relations such as continuation of cooperation on Afghanistan and the decision to lift the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which finally normalized bilateral trade, the relations between the two countries became strained following the adoption of the so-called Magnitsky Act by the U.S. Congress that envisaged visa and financial sanctions against a number of Russian officials who were accused of human rights violations by U.S. officials.287 Russia in turn accused Washington of trying to impose their “mentoring” and in response to the Magnitsky Act ceased all operations of USAID and adopted the so-called Dima Yakovlev Law that excluded a number of American citizens from entering Russia who according to Russian officials were guilty in violating human rights of Russian citizens.288 Moreover, Russia annulled the 2011 bilateral ”Agreement regarding cooperation in adoption of children”.289 Thus, it can be argued that issues such as political regime and human rights did provide an additional irritation moment in U.S.-Russia relations.

Simultaneously, the Russian side was rather critical in regard to U.S. practice to introduce sanctions that go beyond UNSC resolutions against companies maintaining business ties with Iran and Syria and warned that any kind of such restrictions against Russian companies or banks would damage bilateral relations significantly.290 Russian MFA also emphasized that “Russia does not recognize the extraterritorial application of U.S. regulations, including the law on unilateral sanctions against other countries, and will not adjust to it”.291 It should also be noted that Putin’s return to the presidency negatively affected U.S.-Russia relations, since he continuously criticized the United States for their attempt to interfere in Russia’s domestic politics.

However, an especially unpleasant incident for the United States was Russia’s defiant decision to provide U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden with asylum, which led to Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Putin in the framework of the G20 summit.292 The Russian side has also noted that after the incident the United States warned about a possible “pause” in bilateral relations, however these allegations proved to be untenable considering Russia’s leading role in world affairs.293 Nevertheless, U.S. experts warned that such situations, when one side is shutting done all the channels, especially at the highest level, can lead to failure or even crisis.294 Robert Legvold, a political scientist from Columbia University, mentioned that when state leaders do not invest in improving mutual relations, in case of conflict or any danger situation in the post-Soviet space, similar to that of 2008, it threatens serious deterioration of bilateral relations.295

It is worth emphasizing that a high-level dialogue has always been the main element in cooperation between the two countries.296 According to the MFA of Russia, in 2009, the two countries organized five presidential meetings,297 which reached the number of presidential meetings held in 2002, thus, indicating the improvement of bilateral relations (see Appendix 1 and 2). Such a high number of presidential meetings could be explained by joint efforts to launch the “reset” policy and to normalize bilateral relations. The subsequent years showed a fewer number of presidential meetings, in particular, there were approximately two presidential meetings a year. However, one must also pay attention to the quality of such meetings. Thus, for example, in 2010 President Medvedev made an official three days long visit to the United States with a special focus on the expansion of economic and innovation cooperation.298 Though during the last couple of years the United States and Russia still organized regular high-level meetings, there could be seen some tendencies pointing at the deterioration of bilateral relations, for example, there could be mentioned not only the cancelation of Obama’s meeting with Putin in 2013, but also Obama’s decision not to attend the Olympic Games in Sochi. Moreover, the U.S. Olympic delegation did not include neither first lady, nor vice president, nor Obama’s Chief of Staff.299

Despite deteriorating bilateral relations, the United States and Russia continued their cooperation on a number of strategic issues. For example, in 2012 the two countries maintained cooperation on Afghanistan and Russia continued to provide air transit through its territory.300 The two countries also intensified their cooperation in the Arctic Council.301 However, the United States and Russia held a different view on the crisis resolution in Syria, thus, Russia along with China has vetoed any UNSC resolution that called for sanctions against Syrian government and continued to criticize the West and the United States, in particular, for its intention to interfere in internal affairs of sovereign countries. Nevertheless, despite differences in positions on the Syrian crisis the two countries managed to find a common ground on the issue, namely, in September 2013, the United States and Russia “reached a groundbreaking deal on a framework to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons”.302

This case clearly demonstrated that cooperation between such influential countries as the United States and Russia is required to forge solutions for problems of international importance. Thus, in 2013 the two countries continued their cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program in the framework of the six-country group.303 Besides, the two parties signed an agreement on scientific cooperation in nuclear and energy spheres and continued to conduct consultations on international security between ministries of foreign affairs and ministries of defense.304 The two countries also continued cooperation on space exploration, though the United States prohibited deployment of Russia’s GLONASS measuring stations in the territory of the United States.305 Nevertheless, the Russian side emphasized that they faced numerous threats emanating from the United States to block all financial transactions of those Russian companies that maintain business ties with Iran, Syria and North Korea.306 Besides, the two countries have not found common ground on the missile defense issue and Russian officials stated that “Washington along with its NATO allies continued to pursue the deployment of a global missile defense system without taking into considering Russia’s interests”.307 In addition, Washington neglected Russia’s initiative to introduce a visa-free regime for short-term trips.308

The latest Ukraine crisis has strained U.S.-Russia relations significantly, to say the least. Following the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea President Obama during his public speech on February 28, 2014, warned Russia that “there will be costs to any military intervention in Ukraine”,309 which sparked furious reaction from Russian officials. For example, the Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko not only declared that Obama has threatened Russia, thus, showing his disrespect toward Russian people, but also asked Putin “to recall Russia’s ambassador to the United States”.310 After a disputed Crimea referendum that provided Russia with a chance to annex the peninsula, which in turn can be seen by realists as a strategic move to designate its sphere of influence and to preserve its naval base in the Black Sea, the United States took actual measures and started discussing with its European partners a three-stage sanctions. The United States and Obama, in particular, were insisting on the necessity to isolate Russia internationally, thus, on March 26, 2014, Obama declared: “So long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force”.311

Before introducing sanctions, the United States suspended commercial and military cooperation with Russia.312 Thereby, the United States canceled not only trade and investment talks with the country that were aimed at deepening bilateral commercial ties, but also military cooperation, including “exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences”.313 Afterward, the United States along with its partners cancelled the G8 summit in Sochi and on March 24, 2014, suspended Russia’s participation in the G8.314 On March 17, the United States also introduced sanctions against a number of Russian officials and businessmen, but on March 20, the United States expanded this sanctions list by including 20 other Russian high level officials and the Bank of Russia.315 Besides, Obama signed an executive order allowing Washington to impose sanctions against Russia’s key industries.316 Russia in turn warned the United States that any sanctions against Russia would lead to an adequate response, thus, on March 20, 2014, Russia responded by denying entry permit to nine U.S. officials.317

Nevertheless, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, on March 27, the United States proceeded with sanctions and banned “the issuance of licenses for the export of defense items and defense services to Russia”.318 U.S.-Russia deteriorating relations have also influenced bilateral anti-drug cooperation, thus, on March 28, the United States suspended collaboration “with Russia in fighting against drug trafficking”,319 which would hit Russia in the first place, since the United States is much more affected by drug smuggling from Latin America.320 Furthermore, on March 30, the United States “suspended operation of the Bilateral Presidential Commission […] but money for the implementation of its projects would be redirected to Ukraine”.321 Dmitry Peskov, Presidential Press Secretary, noted that this decision has eliminated the two-way communication channel for various issues of mutual interest.322 The next step undertaken by Washington was suspension of any consultations with Russia in the missile defense sphere and suspension of cooperation in space, except the International Space Station project.323 The United States went further and halted U.S.-Russia cooperation on a number of peaceful nuclear energy projects and cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar program that was engaged in nuclear security issues.324 In addition, Russian researchers were denied access to Energy Department facilities, including Fermilab and Brookhaven National Laboratory.325

On April 28, 2014, in connection to the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s alleged role in it, the United States introduced new sanctions against seven Russian high-level officials and 17 Russian companies whose assets would be frozen.326 Expanded sanctions targeted officials and businessmen close to President Putin, for example, all 17 companies that came under U.S. sanctions are controlled by only four businessmen, the President’s close associates.327 Moreover, the United States also banned export of high-tech commodities to Russia that could help to increase Russia’s military strength.328 Simultaneously, Obama expressed his satisfaction with Europe’s willingness to exert pressure on Russia and declared that “Russia has never been more isolated”.329

It can be clearly seen that U.S.-Russia relations worsened significantly and the “reset” policy has run out if its potential. However, the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations that could be observed since 2011, though this time bilateral relations were damaged even more seriously, is nothing new in relations between the two countries. Something similar could be observed in the end of the 1990s and in the 2000s after an attempt to improve bilateral relations in light of September 11 events. Hence, U.S.-Russia relations could be described as rather volatile, swinging from friendly dialogue and intensified cooperation to mutual accusations and even sanctions. However, one must not overlook the fact that even during periods of tensed relations the two countries continued to cooperate on a number of issues, including cooperation in the strategic area.



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