Rethinking Russian-American Relations: Two Years Into “Reset”

After two years of the “Reset” button in U.S.-Russian relations there has been some real progress despite sniping from the sidelines by Republicans and many “neocons” who would like to return to the Cold War. Has there been a total success, no, but more progress has been made than those critics were happy to admit. Obama, in fact, made an historic turnaround in our approach to engagement with Russia.

Among the best signs of success are the results of a recent poll in Russia which showed that a vast majority of Russians want better relations with the West. This is contrary to many pundits, who have written that hate for the West is widespread in Russia. In the last days of Putin’s presidency when he was conducting a propaganda war within Russia against Western values and encouraging xenophobic animosity and Russian nationalism, there appeared to be a much more negative feeling towards the West.

The specific findings were that nearly three quarters of Russians – 74% – favor the idea of strengthening and expanding ties between Russia and the West, while only 18% would like Russia to distance itself from the West. The poll, which was reported by Interfax and by the Levada Center sociological service, cited results of a nationwide poll of 1,600 respondents conducted in 45 regions of Russia in mid-May. The poll also found that of the “Western” countries that respondents said they had “positive attitudes” towards, Germany was the highest (84%) while the U.S. trailed with a still respectable 54%.

Besides public attitudes, the specific gains by Obama in the “Reset” were substantial. They included the New START Treaty, the permitting of US military overflights into Afghanistan, the standing down on a veto of the UN Security Council resolution to authorize a no fly zone in Libya and protection of civilians, and the recent offer to provide Russian helicopters in Afghanistan.

Not least is the ongoing dialogue over the contentious issue of missile defense in Europe which continues. Also likely to continue will be informal talks about further reductions in strategic missiles, dealing with deployed tactical missiles in Europe, and dealing with non-deployed nuclear weapons.

Having said all this, there still lies ahead a rocky road towards better cooperation and the solution of a number of outstanding problems. Not least, the question of who will be the next president of Russia lies ahead in 2012 – as does, for the Russians and their own calculations, the prospect of Obama’s own reelection.

In the last analysis, it is probably Russia itself that will be the final determiner of a lasting “Reset” or rapprochement with America and the West. The greatest obstacle to coming to a real partnership and even lasting integration with the wider democratic societies will be if Russia rids itself of its kleptocracy, its repressive authoritarianism, its myopic isolationist nationalism, its killing of its journalists, civil rights activists, and critics, and develops a true rule of law and lasting robust democratic institutions. This outcome, unfortunately, is still not assured and the struggle within Russia over its soul continues with the forces of darkness still well entrenched. But the best course of action for the West is to support the forces of civic progress via engagement and cooperation rather than leave the stage to the forces of repression.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

One thought on “Rethinking Russian-American Relations: Two Years Into “Reset”

  1. Harry Blaney July 27, 2011 / 1:19 PM

    As we move towards 2012 and elections in Russia and the United States, the issues of how each country will manage the relationship will become more urgent. On both sides there is a high level of uncertainty not only about the results of the elections (unless Putin runs alone without significant opposition), but also how each side will address the success of their policies of cooperation and in some cases opposition to the other’s actions or policies. It is hoped both fiasco will defend the New START treaty as a gain for all sides.

    In Russia Putin has used past elections to advance a strident nationalistic and anti-West/America stance which played well at home but at the cost of self-induced rise of right-wing nativistic opinion. Will this play out again as we move towards 2012? Medvedev has made a stake in the U.S. – Russia relationship and developed an image as a modernizer and moderate reform leader.

    While the American election will be focused on domestic unemployment and the economy plus, I think, the results of a dysfunctional Republican Congressional stance especially if the debt fiasco is blamed on their intransigence. There will also be some debate on Obama’s foreign policy, especially among those voters most knowledgeable and involved in international programs, trade, and generally international issues. But unpredictable events in Russia and nearby nations of the old Soviet Union could, like the Georgia conflict, bring this relationship into the public debate.

    We will be examining the impact of the coming elections and development in Russia-U.S. relations over the coming months and welcome comments on its significant impact on security and related foreign policy issues. Please look for new posts on this. And do add your comments.

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