Cold War and the Failure of the “Reset” Policy
This part provides an analysis of U.S.-Russia relations after the Cold War, paying special attention to the “reset” policy that was initiated by the Obama administration in 2009. The aim of the “reset” was to normalize U.S.-Russia relations and to turn them into a mutually beneficial partnership. Nevertheless, the attempt made by Washington suffered a setback and resulted not just in a chill, but in a serious damage of their bilateral relations with Russia. The deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations could be observed already in 2012, however the latest Ukrainian crisis has further worsened relations between the two countries, leading to mutual condemnation and exchange with sanctions. Therefore, the thesis author has decided to uncover reasons of why the “reset” policy has failed and why the two countries are currently at the lowest level of their bilateral relations. After exploring theories of realism and liberalism and gathering empirical evidence, the author will try to demonstrate which of the two theories can better explain this phenomenon.
Liberalist theory, namely, republican liberalism focuses on a states’ political regime, arguing that democratic states tend to conduct peaceful foreign policy toward each other, however they also tend to employ aggressive measures in their relations with nondemocratic states. Thus, liberal states often distrust illiberal ones, which can be explained by different political traditions and values. Moreover, liberal states, especially the most powerful ones, can pursue liberal imperialism to spread democracy worldwide that can further strain relations between democratic and nondemocratic states. Hence, taking into account that states’ political regime may have implications for international relations, the author has decided to verify whether Russia’s slide toward a more authoritarian regime could deteriorate bilateral relations and become the reason of the “reset” failure. To verify this hypothesis the author was tracing U.S.-Russia relations during the whole time period since the end of the Cold War, highlighting both phases of improved relations and deepened cooperation and phases of tense relations. Simultaneously, the author was tracing changes in Russia’s political regime starting from 1991 until 2014. Thus, by comparing fluctuations in U.S.-Russia relations and Russia’s political regime the author could determine whether changes in Russia’ political regime had an impact on bilateral relations.
Analyzing U.S.-Russia relations after the end of the Cold War, the author discovered that relations between the two countries did not proceed smoothly. During the 1990s, the two countries made a huge progress in their bilateral relations, which can be backed up by the increased number of high-level meetings and bilateral agreements in various areas, including cooperation in the strategic area, aid provided to Russia by the United States or Russia’s admission to the G8. However, the deterioration of bilateral relations could be observed as soon as 1999. The two countries made an attempt to improve their bilateral relations, first in 2001, when after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the United States and Russia launched strategic cooperation on global security issues, and a second time, when the Obama administration launched the “reset” in order to improve United States relations with Russia.
The liberalization process that started in Russia in the 1990s was perceived by many Western policy-makers as a chance to improve U.S.-Russia relations and transform them into mutually beneficial partnership, however it would be incorrect to assume that Russia’s move toward authoritarianism became the main impediment to partnership relations between Russia and the United States and, consequently, was the reason of the “reset” failure. First of all, during the 1990s the world could observe the rapprochement between the two countries, however already then Russia manifested undemocratic trends, such as the 1993 constitutional crisis, the war in Chechnya or flawed presidential elections of 1996, that were not subjected to severe U.S. criticism and the two countries maintained friendly relations. Since 1998 Russia’s political regime was constantly deteriorating and in 2005 the country was eventually ranked as “not free”. From 2005 until 2014 Russia continued to be ranked as “not free”, and, even though in 2008 the Presidential post was taken by Dmitry Medvedev, Russia did not make any progress in terms of democratic development. Besides, it was clear that Putin’s policy line would be maintained, since Putin and Medvedev just switched places to bypass the constitutional rule regarding the presidential term.
Nevertheless, in 2009 the United States and Russia launched the “reset” in their bilateral relations and have achieved a breakthrough on a number of issues, including such problematic issues as sanctions against Iran, Russia’s accession to the WTO and the missile defense in Europe. Even though Russia’s regime still remained authoritarian, the two countries managed to improve bilateral relations and successfully cooperated on many directions. It is especially important that the United States was the initiator of the “reset” policy, which in turn indicates that Russia’s authoritarian political regime did not deter Washington’s willingness to improve its relations with Russia. Consequently, if Russia’s political regime that remained at the same level since 2005 did not restrain the United States from making substantial concessions to Russia in order to develop partnership relations with the country, it could not become the main reason of the “reset” failure. Besides, throughout the whole examined time period, fluctuations in U.S.-Russia relations do not coincide with fluctuations in Russia’s political regime, which indicates the absence of correlation in this particular case. Simultaneously, one must wonder if changes in U.S. domestic politics could affect U.S.-Russia relations significantly. Even though Russian elite prefer to see a Democrat at the presidential post, it can be argued that both Democrats and Republicans strive to achieve the same foreign policy aims, for instance, to remain the strongest power in the system, albeit they may employ different tactics and rhetoric. The U.S. foreign policy remains consistent regardless of which party is in office, for example, the world could observe NATO eastward expansion during both Democratic and Republican administrations and ups and downs in U.S.-Russia relations occurred regardless whether there was a Democrat or a Republican in the administration. Thereby, the author believes that realism can better explain the failure of the “reset” policy.
After the dissolution of the USSR and along with it the end of the Cold War, the United States remained the only superpower in the international system. Russia, the successor of the USSR, in the 1990s faced not only political instability, but was also overwhelmed by economic transformations known as “shock therapy” and enormous external debts left from Soviet times. As a result, the country appeared to be weak and, even though Russia inherited the majority of the USSR property, including nuclear weapons, Russia’s population became impoverished, corruption and criminal activity flourished while military capabilities decreased significantly. This was the time when the new Russian state was reconsidering its relations with Western countries and was looking forward to receiving required aid from the West. The 1990s indicated the rapprochement between the two countries, including provision of U.S. aid to Russia. However, the decisive factor was that U.S. assistance was not simply conditional, but was also used to exert pressure on Russia as in the case of Russian troops’ withdrawal from the Baltic States when U.S. aid was linked to the progress on the issue.428 Besides, Jeffrey Sachs noted that Russia has not received genuine aid such as debt relief or grant aid that was necessary to save the country from dreadful consequences of initial reforms.429
Russia’s weakness and dependence on foreign funding during the 1990s could be used by other international actors as a leverage to get concessions from Moscow and to promote their national interests. This could be observed not only in the case of troops’ withdrawal from the Baltic countries, but also in the case of Russia’s arms sales to Iran when under U.S. pressure Russia stopped exporting military goods to this country, which resulted in at least five billion dollar loss. Nevertheless, this development did not cause significant damage to U.S.-Russia relations compared to Washington’s decision to support NATO enlargement to the East, which was perceived by Russia as a serious threat, considering the possibility of appearance of NATO military forces near Russian borders. The NATO expansion of 1999 was not the last one and the next 2004 enlargement turned out to be even more traumatic for Russia, since the three Baltic States were also admitted to the military alliance. Thereby, the preservation of NATO helped the United States not only to maintain its influence in Europe, but also to expand it by admitting new European members. This move can be seen by realists, and especially analysts such as Mearsheimer, as rather understandable, since each great power is seeking for dominance, considering the fact that state cannot accurately predict how much power will be necessary to stay secure after a lapse of a decade or two. This is especially important in the case of Russia, since after the end of the Cold War Russia was not defeated completely and it still retained valuable means such as nuclear weapons or profitable raw materials that in course of time could help the country to restore its might. Thereby, it can be argued that the United States was behaving in an offensive realist manner, which was conditioned by the necessity to maintain its power and influence and to prevent the appearance of a potential “challenger”.
Consequently, by supporting Baltic states’ membership in NATO the United States has shrank Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. However, the United States did not rule out the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, thus, in 2008 Bush supported their aspiration to join the alliance, which became the last straw in the eyes of Russia and ultimately resulted in the August 2008 conflict. Apparently, Russia faced a threat of being surrounded by NATO military bases. Deborah Miller, the Chief of Political-Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Riga, asserts that the United States sees benefits from cooperation, which is why Washington started the “reset” policy and that countries such as Georgia or Ukraine should decide for themselves which side to choose.430 However, Miller emphasizes that Russia still perceives the world as a zero-sum game.431 According to Miller, Russia’s aim is to preserve its sphere of influence, which is why it would be advantageous for Russia to keep countries such as Ukraine destabilized so that it could not fulfill its commitments and join the EU and NATO.432
Considering the preservation of NATO after the Cold War, Miller believes that it was the right decision to maintain the alliance, since in a case of emergency the United States has not just allies in Europe but forces that have been trained and know how to cooperate and fight together.433 Simultaneously, Miller stresses that Eastern European countries, including the Baltic States, have joined the alliance voluntarily. Indeed, it should be admitted that for many Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics a prospect of NATO membership became very attractive.434 In this case it can be argued that the United States were employing economic and diplomatic means to attract new allies in the system, as, according to Mearsheimer, states can use a variety of means “to shift the balance of power in their favor”.435
From Russia’s perspective, expansion of the alliance happened at Russia’s expense, especially taking into consideration the fact that Russia was not anymore a superpower in the international system. Russia’s move on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which became a bone of contention between Russia and the United States that led to the adoption of sanctions by the latter, can be explained by Russia’s aspiration to retain its influence in the territories of the former USSR. Thus, for example, in 2013, Russia provided Ukraine with gas discounts and loans to keep the country in its orbit and to convince Yanukovich not to sign Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovich’s consent led to the Maidan protests that were supported by the West and the United States, in particular, that resulted in the expulsion of the pro-Russian president Yanukovich. This outcome was perceived as a threat by Moscow. Thus, for example, on May 30, 2014, during the Moscow Conference on International Security, Russia’s high level officials such as Sergei Lavrov, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov expressed their concern in regard to the West’s and especially U.S. support for protesters in order to change opposing or unfavorable governments.436 Hence, the seizure of Crimea should be seen as a strategic move, taking into account the geopolitical importance of the territory and Russia’s ability to keep its naval base in the Black Sea. The change of Ukraine’s government caused anxiety in Russia, since, in course of time, Russia could lose access to Sevastopol naval base. For example, already in 2008 the Ukrainians did not want to prolong the lease, however they succumbed to the offer of lower gas prices.437
Thereby, NATO expansion and U.S. growing influence in Europe was perceived as a real threat by Russia, since no state can be guaranteed that military preparations or expansion of a military alliance would not be used against it. In addition, another moment of irritation for Moscow became U.S.-NATO plans to establish a missile defense in Eastern Europe and the refusal to provide any evidence that the system would not be used against Russia and would not undermine its nuclear parity. Thus, the issue of the missile defense system was not resolved neither in 2011, nor in 2012, nor in 2013 and Russia continued to express its concerns and suspicions about Pentagon’s plans.
Miller emphasized that the reason for the missile defense deployment is solely Iran and North Korea, but not Russia. However, even though that U.S. missile defense plans may indeed be targeted against Iran and North Korea, these preparations could be perceived by Russia as unfriendly, thus, causing the security dilemma. Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine can be seen as aggressive by the international society, however Russia’s logic is stemming from defensive considerations. After the end of the Cold War, the United States has not only retained its position in Europe, but has also expanded its influence to Eastern Europe, thus, shrinking Russia’s sphere of influence. The fear of losing other former Soviet republics, and especially Ukraine, from Russia’s orbit was perceived by Moscow as a geopolitical weakness. Thereby, Russia is trying to produce counterbalancing behavior in order to preserve its power in its traditional sphere of influence, which in turn becomes a bone of contention between the United States and Russia.
After the “reset” was launched, the two countries achieved goals that have been set before, for example, signed a new START treaty, completed WTO talks, imposed stricter sanctions against Iran etc. However, the two countries lacked common interests to turn the “reset” into genuine partnership, while controversial visions concerning Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space led to serious frictions between the United States and Russia. In regard to the lack of mutual interests, one can recall Russia’s position on Syria, which was obviously in contrast with that of the United States and could be explained by Russia’s economic interests in the country, for example, arms sales or infrastructure projects. This also became the reason of Moscow’s grievance when the United States took unilateral actions against Iraq or adopted sanctions against Russia’s companies that had business ties with Iran. Therefore, U.S. dominance and attempts to promote its world order vision, especially in regard to the Post-Soviet space, is unacceptable for Russia whose latest actions in Ukraine should be seen as an attempt to ensure its dominant role in these territories. Consequently, these competing policies that find their roots in security issues resulted in the failure of the “reset” policy.
The aim of the thesis was to examine U.S.-Russia relations and to understand why the “reset” policy that led to a number of significant achievements in bilateral relations has ultimately failed. To find the reason of such an outcome the author was tracing U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War and as a guidance for understanding this phenomenon has chosen two theories, namely, realism and liberalism. After reviewing the two theories and analyzing U.S.-Russia relations along with the evolution of Russia’s political regime, the author has come to conclusion that the first hypothesis, which claimed that Russia’s move toward a more authoritarian regime deteriorated the bilateral relations and resulted in the failure of the “reset”, was rejected by means of empirical test.
The second hypothesis, however, was confirmed by the author. U.S. dominant position in the system and disregard of Russia’s national interests and security concerns since the end of the Cold War compelled Russia to resort to counteracting measures to preserve its traditional sphere of influence and eliminate any probability of further expansion of U.S. influence in the post-Soviet space. When the United States and Russia completed the goals that were set during the “reset”, their conflicting world order visions and policies resulted in the failure of launched “reset” policy. The latest Ukrainian crisis brought U.S.-Russia bilateral relations to the lowest point, however Russia’s actions should be seen in strategic terms, since Russia perceived U.S. growing influence in Eastern Europe, notably near its borders, as a potential threat. Nowadays Russia is not as weak as it was in the 1990s, largely owing to the boom of oil and gas prices, which is why Russia could take a chance to oppose U.S. growing influence in the region and to demonstrate that Russia’s interests must be taken into consideration.
Nevertheless, despite the failure of the “reset” and significant damage made to bilateral relations, the author predicts that the two countries will maintain a dialogue and that bilateral relations can be normalized again in course of time. This position can be explained by the fact that both countries have a great impact on the international system and threats such as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear program or nuclear terrorism can be prevented only by combining efforts and by exerting collective pressure. Deborah Miller also stressed that Russia’s isolations is not in U.S. interests, considering Russia’s role in world affairs.438 Besides, Russia possesses one of the largest nuclear weapons stockpiles and this Cold War legacy has always provided a common ground for a dialogue, since reduction of nuclear weapons is in interests of both countries. This can explain why the two countries continue cooperation in certain areas and why they did not abandon the New START treaty.