[E. Wayne, E. Wayne Merry is Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. He is widely published and a frequent speaker on topics relating to Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Balkans, European security and trans-Atlantic relations. In twenty-six years in the United States Foreign Service, he worked as a diplomat and political analyst specializing in Soviet and post-Soviet political issues, including six years at the American Embassy in Moscow, where he was in charge of political analysis on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the early years of post-Soviet Russia. He also served at the embassies in Tunis, East Berlin, and Athens and at the US Mission to the United Nations in New York. In Washington he served in the Treasury, State, and Defense Departments. In the Pentagon he was Regional Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the mid-Nineties. He also served at the Headquarters of the US Marine Corps and on Capitol Hill with the staff of the US Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was later a program director at the Atlantic Council of the United States., May 22, New York Times, “A ‘Reset’ Is Not Enough,” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/opinion/23iht-edmerry.html?_r=0, accessed July 7, 2014, EK]
A reset seeks to restore a previous relationship, which for former officials of the Clinton administration now back in office means the Yeltsin years. This will fail because Moscow views that period as emblematic of Russian weakness and exploitation by the West, and especially by the United States.
Relations with Moscow deteriorated under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The U.S. neo-liberal project of the ’90s not only failed but deeply alienated Russians. The bilateral nadir was the Kosovo war, a worse episode than last year’s Georgia conflict. A new opportunity after 9/11 was frankly squandered.
Washington regarded Russia as a loser and treated it as such. It forgot that Russia would not be weak forever, and would remember.
Two structural problems limit the relationship and its improvement. First, it is very narrow, with few automatic stabilizers. Unlike Russian-European or U.S.-Chinese relations, the scant economic and human ties between the U.S. and Russia provide inadequate ballast when problems arise. Relations are highly vulnerable to outside events and defined more by disputes than cooperation. When malice is added to the mix, the result is dangerous.
Second, for Moscow the relationship is largely zero sum, in that Russian diplomacy succeeds where America’s fails, as in Iran and Venezuela. This is the consequence both of the huge asymmetry in real power and influence of the two countries and an asymmetry of geography in that almost anything the United States does in Eurasia affects Russia’s interests, often adversely. Thus Moscow worries that a successful Obama presidency will come at their expense with other countries. Russian commentators especially fear this may be the case with Iran, seeing the potential for a shift comparable to Mao’s China or Sadat’s Egypt.
The current Russian leadership bears a disproportionate share of the blame for our poisonous relations. But Washington needs to adopt new rules of engagement to not repeat mistakes of the previous 16 years:
One, minimize deliberate challenges to Russian interests and know that none will come free. If we push NATO, they will push back. When we sponsored an independent Kosovo, Moscow declared it would do the same in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Reciprocity is real.