international analysis and commentary

Russia and the US: reaching the limits of the “reset” policy?

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Washington from July 11-13 for bilateral meetings on a wide range of issues. Contrary to expectations the two sides failed to agree on most issues on the agenda. The visit was disappointing on many fronts and highlighted the existing attrition between the two countries despite the “reset” policy. Above all, the deadlock over missile defense shows how the US-Russia relationship is still vulnerable, with real risk factors lying on the horizon.

The US and Russia planned to sign at least two agreements – one on adoptions and the other on easing the visa regime – yet only the former was fully accomplished. Russia is the second largest source of adoptions for the United States after China, with more than 50,000 children adopted since 1991. However, 17 children have died as a result of abuse by their adopted families in the US. Lavrov threatened to ban adoptions in April 2010 after an American family sent their seven-year-old adopted son back to Russia unaccompanied on a plane and with a note complaining that he was psychologically unstable. The adoption process was therefore frozen until very recently when Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a new agreement. The treaty establishes clear and tight guidelines for the adoption process and the monitoring of children. The document states that adoptions in Russia can only be carried forward through agencies that have special accreditation from the Russian Ministry of Education, excluding in this way any independent (or dubious) mediators.

On the other issue under discussion, while US and Russian diplomats promised to ease the visa regime, attempts to improve the process remained merely rhetorical. The US Secretary of State simply promised that the two countries will “work to further simplify the work and travel between the two countries.” Lavrov declared that “an agreement with the US on easing the visa regime is ready, we will sign it very soon”.

A further sign of some friction may be that the two sides did not manage to agree on the timing of an official visit by US President Barak Obama to Russia, which has already been postponed several times. As the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported, Washington is in no hurry to designate a specific time frame as long as Moscow does not agree on a common position on missile defense. Indeed, as Lavrov reiterated during his visit, this issue remains the only irritant in the relations between Moscow and Washington.

The bilateral meetings at the latest G8 in Deauville and the recent NATO-Russia summit in Sochi confirmed the main reasons that dim the likelihood of further nuclear arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington. In Deauville, Medvedev went as far as to claim that “If we do not reach an agreement by 2020, a new arms race will begin”.

For Russia it is a nonnegotiable condition that the Western partners sign a legally binding document to demonstrate that the planned missile defense shield would not pose a threat to the country’s strategic forces. NATO has so far refrained from formally stating such a principle. During the Sochi summit in early July, the alliance’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, once again declined Moscow’s proposal, calling a legally binding agreement on the mutual non-use of force “unnecessary”. On July 4, NATO stated that it is not going to build a joint anti-missile system with Russia and does not find it necessary to provide legal guarantees that the shield will not be targeting Russia.

Doubts have arisen about the aim of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy itself, whose main achievement so far has been the New START – an arms control agreement between Russia and the United States. Whether the momentum of renewed cooperation between the US and Russia will dissipate or lead to further nuclear arms control agreements depends on several factors – as Alexei Arbatov, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlines. Firstly, behind their more ambitious disarmament rhetoric, the United States and Russia maintain conservative nuclear policies that make radical nuclear disarmament unlikely. Secondly, President Obama’s decision to modify the Bush administration’s ballistic missile defense plans in Central Europe opened the way for the New START and eased Russian concerns, even if they could never be allayed entirely. Moscow believes that the ballistic missile defense programs were ultimately designed to degrade Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and it is far from clear if US proposals to jointly develop such capabilities with Russia would diminish those concerns. Thirdly, even a joint development of ballistic missile defense between US and Russia would have problematic consequences, as it could seriously complicate Washington’s and Moscow’s strategic relations with China and India.

On a more positive note, the US and Russia did confirm their similar outlooks on important foreign policy issues. During the bilateral meetings with Lavrov, Obama discussed issues like the next steps in Libya, Sudan and the political changes in Syria and Yemen. At a press conference, Lavrov even stated that Russia has more in common with the US than with Europe. On the other hand, the US is increasingly encouraging Russia’s active role in international affairs, thus underlining the need for cooperation between the two countries on a series of crucial international issues, like the resignation of Muammar Gheddafi.

Having said all this, a serious obstacle for enhanced US-Russian relations is still the mutual suspicion inherited from the Cold War, which is a major problem especially because the bilateral relationship – from the G8 to NATO to a number of regional issues – can have systemic consequences on the international setting.

Potential cooperation between Russia and the US relies on the painstaking efforts by US and Russian diplomats and experts, and the process of reconciliation and normalization is not complete. After ten years of stagnation, in the past two years the “reset” policy has been reinvigorating. In this context, prejudices and misunderstandings are gradually being overtaken. Yet, the bilateral relationship still does not lie on solid ground.