The premise was simple. U.S.-Russia relations after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Barack Obama came into the presidency believing that he could reset the U.S.-Russia relationship by identifying common interests on which to build cooperation with the Kremlin. He discontinued the George W. Bush administration’s aggressive pursuit of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and altered the Bush missile defense plan. Meanwhile, he would encourage the Russians to accede to tougher sanctions on Iran and accommodate a supply route for American personnel and materiel into Afghanistan. Russia sought another arms control treaty, which fit Obama’s non-proliferation agenda nicely.
Both sides could claim great success during Obama’s first few years in office. The Russians no longer had to worry about American declarations of support for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia; and while they grew to understand that Obama’s missile defense plan was quite robust, initially the removal of radar systems from the Czech Republic appeared a major concession to Moscow. Washington received additional sanctions on Iran as well as a new supply route that reduced U.S. dependence on Pakistan (which proved critical when it came time to authorize the covert mission against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad that otherwise would have threatened America’s only path to resupply its troops). And both sides could claim victory with the signing of the New Start Treaty.
But by the end of 2013, the issues that animated the reset had withered. NATO had lost its zeal for further enlargement, and missile defense had merely become an irritant in the relationship. Obama suggested a follow-on arms control treaty, but the Russians had lost interest, and the U.S. Senate would be unlikely to ratify it. Moreover, with the end of the mission in Afghanistan, the supply route became inconsequential. Iran was at the negotiating table.
Obama canceled his summit with Putin last fall not simply because of the Edward Snowden affair but because there was nothing to accomplish at the meeting. Recently, U.S. officials suggested the pursuit of a common economic agenda might help build cooperation between the two countries – further illustrating what little shared interest remains.
As Putin contemplated entering Crimea, losing anything of value in the U.S.-Russia relationship was clearly not a central concern. It has been evident for some time that his relationship with Obama means little to him. Putin has continued his strong crackdown on civil society at home without regard for external criticism. Moreover, he recognizes that his interests in Ukraine are far greater than those of the Americans, thereby affording him great freedom of maneuver. The reset has been over for some time, and there is nothing to save.
The relationship was at its lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union when Barack Obama won the presidency; it is now far worse. But given the nature of the Putin regime, that is to be expected. Moreover, the idea that the United States still needs Russia’s support on Syria and Iran runs counter to the facts. Putin has successfully pursued his pro-Assad policy throughout the Syrian civil war, and it is Iran’s bilateral relationship with the United States that will be critical to a future nuclear deal.
Obama warned Putin of political and economic isolation in their phone call on Saturday, and he should back it up with efforts within the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and through sanctions against Russia’s elite. Since the Russian president’s internal and foreign policies undermine U.S. efforts to promote an international order built on democracy and rule of law, Obama must change course dramatically with respect to his administration’s foreign policy strategy with Russia.