international analysis and commentary

Resetting US leadership after the Ukraine-Russia crisis

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Five years from now, if not sooner, policymakers in Washington will look back on events in Ukraine and possibly think, “We should have seen it coming.” From such perspective, the 2009 so-called “reset” in US-Russia relations was a failed, perhaps naïve attempt to cooperate with Moscow. But while it is safe to say the reset is dead, it still fulfilled its primary purpose and continues to offer a valuable model. Indeed, only in September 2014 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for another reset, and, in October, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev requested a “constructive and friendly dialogue.” The time will come when US-Russia relations will begin the healing process and officials in both countries will learn lessons from the reset, but this is unlikely to materialize in the near future largely as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions on the Russian economy. Medvedev is now blaming these sanctions for the death of the reset. And Washington is continuing to learn that Russia’s long-term vision for geopolitical stability may be at odds with US national interest. This raises challenging questions with regard not only to the downward spiral in relations with Moscow, but, more broadly, in terms of US leadership, making a whole new type of reset necessary.

In a 2009 speech in Moscow, US President Barack Obama defined the reset as, “a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and co-operation that can pave the way to progress.” This meant acknowledging US-Russia interdependence based on the shared principle that “any world order that tries to elevate one value or people over another will inevitably fail.” The substance of this rapprochement included the New START Treaty to reduce nuclear weapons, military-to-military cooperation, and facilitating Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, among other initiatives. These steps should be seen as real, tangible policy successes.

The Russian involvement in Ukraine, along with US sanctions, ensures the reset is no longer a deciding factor in US policy. But did  the policy achieve what it set out to do? Although it is unpopular at present in Washington to suggest Russia is anything other than a bully and a menace, the answer is yes. The reset was a framing device and a tool by which to make as many gains as possible in the US-Russia relationship while they were readily available. In 2009, strategic arms control was in both countries’ interests, for example. The rapprochement also relied on leadership changes in both Washington and Moscow with the arrival of Medvedev and Obama and his new foreign policy team. Therefore, in addition to its substantive impact, the reset was also symbolic. In Washington, in particular, it afforded Obama an opportunity to break from the past and from the legacies of the Bush Administration, and to layout his own agenda.

Before events unfolded in Ukraine, however, the relationship was already on shaky ground. As early as late 2012, Russia accused the United States of jeopardizing relations with sanctions on Russian individuals accused of human rights violations. The government in Moscow then cancelled cooperation on nuclear security. To be sure, much was gained from the reset, but it was approaching its limits well before the current crisis in Ukraine.

The ongoing debate over whether or not to send weapons to Ukraine is but one manifestation of the bigger questions at play in terms of the US strategy towards Russia, namely how to manage the competing objectives of sending a strong message to Moscow whilst avoiding escalation. A recent report by the Brookings Institution called, on balance, for leaning towards the former, noting that a common desire to avoid escalation “should not outweigh the West’s interest in blocking Russian aggression that poses a threat not just to Ukraine, but also to the security of broader Europe and the transatlantic community.” NATO allies, particularly the Baltic States, are looking to Washington for reassurance and a strong response to halt Russian aggression and prevent further advances. At the same time, any military support for Ukrainian troops or increased US military presence in the region runs the risk of providing Russia with an excuse to escalate its own involvement in the conflict.  

The American response to events in Ukraine, along with the broader US-Russia relationship, is getting caught up in bigger questions about US leadership and how America perceives itself. To again envision how policymakers will look back in five years time, the current era may appear to be one in which the United States took a backseat in global affairs, simultaneously withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq and backpedalling over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. This would be a misperception, however, as US leadership has not necessarily decreased, but rather changed in nature. Obama’s initiatives on climate change and his increased reliance on drones are two readily available examples in very different policy areas.

The same principle guiding those policies now needs to be directed to Ukraine, but with a louder message. Specifically, US policy towards Russia in the context of the crisis in Ukraine provides an opportunity to reclaim a leadership role and stand up in defense of stability and the sanctity of borders, along with America’s deeply held liberal values. This need not necessarily take the form of providing offensive arms to the Ukrainian military, but does require active engagement and a refusal to accept yet another “frozen conflict.” Perhaps the US-Russia reset cannot be salvaged, but the United States can embark on another reset, of its own image as a global leader.