The Russian reset: good, bad...or nonexistent?

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, share a toast during a luncheon at Prague Castle in Prague, April 8, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • View New START for what it is--unilateral disarmament by the US

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  • 2012 candidates must answer: is the #Russian reset good or bad policy?

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  • Next president will likely face a restless Russia

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This post is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22nd.

It’s well-known that the Obama administration touts the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations as one of its major foreign policy achievements. The United States has arguably made considerable concessions by reconfiguring its missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, reducing its stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, and de-emphasizing—at least rhetorically—human rights and democracy in both Russia and the remainder of the former Soviet Union. But Russia’s supposed concessions lack a corresponding level of substance.

"While New START has been hyped as the reset’s principal achievement, the treaty should be viewed for what it is—unilateral disarmament by the United States."--Daniel Vajdic

On Iran, Russia has backed one additional round of Security Council sanctions during the reset. In 2006-2008, however, while Putin was still president, Russia agreed to three rounds of sanctions against Iran. This doesn’t suggest that Putin will be more likely than Medvedev to enact multilateral sanctions. But it does raise legitimate questions about what’s been achieved in the context of the reset.

In Afghanistan, Russia opened supply routes because, despite all its rhetoric about NATO, the Kremlin knows that the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia represents its primary external security threat. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov admitted publicly in August that Russia cooperates with the United States in Afghanistan for its own interests and that, reset or no reset, Russia would help prevent a resurgence of the Taliban.

Missile defense is still a point of contention. Moscow was opposed to Bush’s ground-based midcourse system proposal, which Obama scrapped, but it’s also critical of the Obama administration’s phased-adaptive approach. The reset hasn’t altered the Kremlin’s stance on missile defense.

Finally, while New START has been hyped as the reset’s principal achievement, the treaty should be viewed for what it is—unilateral disarmament by the United States. The State Department conceded last spring that Russia was already below ceilings in both strategic nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles when the treaty came into force (although, strangely, Moscow has deployed additional nuclear weapons since then and is now over the cap).

The candidates must address the reset in this month’s debate. Is it good policy, bad policy, or—as this author argues—is there less to the reset than meets the eye? It’s all too easy to overlook Russia as revolutionary changes sweep the Middle East, relations with Pakistan deteriorate to an alarming degree, and the United States continues to withdraw troops from Iraq and begins a drawdown in Afghanistan. But the next president will likely face a restless Russia that deflects mounting domestic challenges through attempts to assert power abroad. Putin’s inevitable return to the Kremlin will amplify the challenges that the White House—regardless of who’s in it—faces from a country that continues to define its interests in opposition to those of the United States.

Daniel Vajdic is a research assistant at AEI

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