Truman National Security Project

Russia 101: Moving Past the Reset


On June 17th at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Presidents Putin and Obama met for the first time since either earned re-election. The encounter was frosty and stiff, with issues like Syria and human rights topping the agenda. The Russian-American relationship has been unsteady since the United States backed Georgia in the regional conflict in 2008, and the G8 meeting proved a rare success in cooperation for the two states, with a bilateral cyber security working group and nuclear arms reduction commitment emerging.  Nevertheless, the effort by the Obama administration to turn over a new leaf has been deemed a flop by experts. What makes the Russian relationship so difficult to maintain, and why is it important for American national security?

Read on to see the ways Russian cooperation is vital to our national security interests.

Even with the Cold War far in the rear-view mirror and successful arms reduction treaties in place, Russia remains the only state on Earth with a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the United States. Moreover, Russia is the world’s second largest arms supplier, exporting $15 billion worth of arms in 2012 alone, with major clients such as Syria, China, and even Iran. President Obama made Russian re-engagement and cooperation a priority in his first term, announcing the “reset” of relations in 2009. Maintaining a working relationship with Russia allows the United States to achieve cooperation on international security issues, as Russia often holds the deciding swing vote on the UN Security Council.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the reset, however, has been the agreement and ratification of the New START Treaty, which replaces the 1991 START. Aimed at responsibly reducing each nation’s strategic offensive arms by 2018, the Treaty sets limits on warheads, ICBM and SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear armaments. Last week, Presidents Obama and Putin replaced the expired Nunn-Lugar program (which expired earlier this month) with a new bilateral framework for dismantling nuclear weapons.

Why has the reset been widely touted as a failure, even by the Obama administration?

The simple answer may be a change in leadership, or lack thereof. Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian Presidency in 2012 to serve a third term, replacing the moderate and mildly cooperative Dmitry Medvedev, who was considered to have been a puppet of Putin himself. Putin won in an election riddled with fraud and flagrant ballot-stuffing (Chechnya saw 107% turnout), and ran on an anti-American platform. Upon taking office, Putin expelled USAID from the country, passed a law requiring NGOs receiving international funding to register as foreign agents, and last month banned American citizens from adopting Russian orphans.

(Further) Sources of Tension

Russian and American interests are not diametrically opposed, but they do clash in several key areas. Regionally, where the United States sees a humanitarian crisis in Syria, Russia sees a long-standing arms contract and friend in the Middle East. And as the United States moves to pull out of Afghanistan, Russia grows anxious at the potential for unrest to spread to its southern Caucasus region.


While the United States and Arab League have sided with the opposition, Putin sees Bashar al-Assad as a war-time President. The latest and by far most publicized grievance has been the sale of advanced antiaircraft weapons to Syria. Experts argue these weapons (it remains unclear whether they have yet been delivered) have the potential both to seriously harm the Syrian rebellion and pose an additional threat to Israel. The S-300 missiles are the same which Russia agreed, under pressure from the United States and UNSC, not to sell to Iran in 2010.

Domestic Affairs and Tit-for-Tat Diplomacy

The U.S. Congress released the Magnitsky list in April (an homage to lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after exposing corruption in the Russian government), a blacklist of Russian citizens who have committed atrocities against human rights. The Act gives Congress the power to deny entry to and freeze assets of anyone on the list, prompting the Kremlin to respond in kind, creating their own blacklist. The Russian document names Americans who have held positions of authority at Guantanamo Bay.  The Magnitsky Act has become a banner for the Kremlin to accuse the United States of meddling in Russian internal affairs.

Free Speech

The United States has overlooked many domestic affronts to civil liberties in the name of the reset. Last week, the Duma passed a law banning “gay propaganda”, which restricts individuals and organizations from equating straight and gay marriage. The law is the latest in a string of anti-democratic policies and actions, such as the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot, restrictions placed on international NGOs, and sham-trial of Alexei Navalny, opposition blogger and activist.

Finding Common Ground

Where then, can the United States and Russia find ways to cooperate? Closer economic ties would deepen and help cement the relationship. In 2012, a mere 0.6% of American exports went to Russia. Even with the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment last year (restricting trade to the USSR to protest Soviet limitations on Jewish emigrants), trade has not seen a significant uptick. The announcement of a working group led by Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Medvedev on trade and investment should yield greater economic cooperation.  The leaders have also pledged, despite their differences on the matter, to work towards negotiating peace in Syria. These commitments leave many experts hopeful for a productive future for the US-Russian relationship.

Lucia Savchick is a contributing writer to the Truman Doctrine.