Commentators discussing Russian-U.S. relations in 2011 usually pinned their analysis on attempts to establish whether or not the reset was over, and what its results might have been. This approach seemed strange because as designed by its architects in spring 2009, the reset was crowned with the ratification of the START Treaty in December 2010. It embraced a limited number of issues. It was fundamentally aimed at taking bilateral relations out of the complete deadlock they found themselves mired in by the end of George W. Bush’s term in office, and making the transition to dialog. Specifically, it envisaged cooperation over strategic arms reductions, Afghanistan and sanctions against Iran. The two sides achieved all these goals. What more could the reset be expected to deliver – after all, taking this metaphor literally, it simply means pressing a button – once. Ideally, it was expected to lead to some other policy as a transition but this failed to transpire.
Incidentally, there were two attempts to continue the reset – one unsuccessful (talks on joint missile defense in Europe) and one successful (Russia’s WTO accession). The latter became a kind of bonus for the reset, all the more pleasant since it came at a time when everything else got bogged down.
As for missile defense in Europe, Russian and American experts spent several months after the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 trying to find forms of cooperation that worked. The result was not even zero but negative – they admitted complete lack of any opportunities in this field. This was not a sensation because many analysts predicted the incompatibility of their positions from the very outset. The lack of even minimal progress prevented President Barack Obama from paying a planned visit to Moscow in 2011. Nonetheless, the talks were useful because they allowed the sides to discuss specific aspects of the issue, rather than merely trading propaganda. There’s no doubt that missile defense will be back on the agenda. The May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago will be the first test. Russia threatens to ignore it if there is no progress on the issue. Some changes for the better may take place after the new administration comes to power in the United States in 2013 because it will have to deal with the same issue. Russia insists on discussing the principles of strategic stability that are directly linked with the missile defense issue. For the time being there are no new ideas – just the same old MAD concept.
The end of the unprecedentedly long saga of Russia’s WTO accession, on which many had long since given up hope, was a pleasant surprise against the backdrop of generally stagnant Russian-U.S. relations. Last year, both sides made a final push, having concluded that better terms were unrealistic and the time was just right. Goodwill became particularly apparent over the Georgian issue. The United States exerted noticeable pressure on Tbilisi and Russia alleviated its position. Russia’s WTO accession will hardly lead to instant changes in its economic ties with the rest of the world, but will do more to offer American and other investors the predictability they so need.
The political reshuffle in Russia – Dmitry Medvedev’s departure and Vladimir Putin’s return – was a big disappointment for Washington, which hoped to continue working with Medvedev. First, the nature of this switch confirmed the fears of those who consider Russia a desperate autocracy revolving around one individual. Second, many got the impression that Medvedev’s role in previous years had in fact been less important than was believed, meaning that Obama had actually been dealing with Russia’s lesser authority. However, the events that followed the announcement of Putin’s return compelled many to raise the specter of early changes in Russia. This thought created quite a stir in Washington, but everyone is trying to figure out how serious these trends are in reality.
Moscow’s decision to abstain from voting on the resolution that allowed armed intervention in the civil war in Libya influenced bilateral relations. This was a very unusual position for Moscow to take, and it never became clear what guided the Kremlin in adopting this decision, or whether the ruling tandem was even unanimous on it. However, Moscow’s position largely determined the subsequent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime with NATO troops’ active involvement. In Russia this abstention was sharply criticized and eventually considered a mistake, which later influenced its position on Syria. Nevertheless, Russia created a precedent of benevolent abstention from interference in domestic affairs. The choice of the “leadership-from-the-rear tactic” by the United States was also unusual.
In 2011, the Obama administration became gradually involved in the discussion of Russia’s domestic issues, even though this was something it had previously been reluctant to do. The mounting repercussions resulting from the Sergei Magnitsky case, and the threat of Congress adopting a long blacklist of Russian officials to be denied entry visas, compelled the State Department to act preemptively. It announced the existence of its own list and the Russian Foreign Ministry took a reciprocal step, although the names on these lists were not made public. Russia lashed out at America for its mistreatment of Russian citizens on trial in the United States – pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko and businessman Viktor Bout. After the Duma elections, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin traded critical remarks. The Russian prime minister accused the U.S. Secretary of State of helping to destabilize Russia. It seems polemics on democracy will intensify as protests intensify in Russia and as the U.S. election campaign heats up.
Next year will be a complicated one for bilateral relations. The sides have exhausted the positive agenda and the election-related political fervor in both countries will only emphasize areas of dissonance. Therefore, Moscow and Washington must act to minimize the damage before the new political cadences take hold in both countries.