Undoing the Reset

Posted by: Русский 8 Print Page

The cancellation of the U.S.-Russian summit marks the formal end of President Barack Obama’s reset policy. 

The Edward J. Snowden case is not the reason the summit was called off. At most, it is a pretext. The failure to achieve any progress on Syria is a more serious symptom of what is wrong with U.S.-Russian relations. 

The real reason is U.S. domestic politics. In the last several weeks, Obama was severely criticized on all sides—from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times—for his allegedly too-soft policy on Russia. With Obama finding it increasingly difficult to promote his domestic agenda with the healthcare reform as its centerpiece, he does not want to make more enemies. Apparently, canceling the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to be the lesser evil in the eyes of the U.S. president and his advisers.

The only precedent for this decision that I remember was the choice by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to call off a summit with then U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960—after the downing of the U-2 spy plane over the Urals and the capture of the pilot, Gary Powers. The decision will leave its mark on U.S.-Russian relations. The atmosphere will grow thicker, and cooperation even harder to obtain. The Kremlin will likely interpret the move by the White House as a sign of Obama’s political vulnerability and conclude that not much can be done with the present administration. No imminent crisis will follow from this decision, but the relationship will not be productive for some time.

But it may not stop there. The reset might be followed by something that can be called a counter-reset: a U.S. policy of applying more pressure on Russia. Some of those who have been calling on Obama to cancel his meeting with Putin actually want the administration to go further than this. The 2014 Winter Olympics that Russia will host in Sochi has been their favorite target. If they aren’t arguing to boycott them altogether, then they want Obama and other Western leaders to refuse to attend the games. Russia’s hosting of the G8 meeting in 2014 may also be called into question. And the “Magnitsky list” of Russians sanctioned by the United States may run longer and reach higher levels.

All these things are symbolic, but they symbolize a trend that has been gaining strength since 2011: a shift toward alienation in the relationship between Russia and the West. With Obama’s reluctant decision to cancel the summit, the trend has reached an important milestone. 

Ostensibly aimed at Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s policies, the efforts of those who seek to punish Moscow and put pressure on it will contribute to the global geopolitical rebalancing. Steven Pifer, an experienced U.S. diplomat and a respected analyst, has just written that Russia has become irrelevant to the United States. Time will test this interesting proposition.

 

 

Comments (8)

 
 
  • JLG
    Kind of hard to credit this argument. You don't need to go back to the 60s for a close precedent; it was only a bit more than a year ago that Putin skipped a G8 summit hosted by Obama. Moreover, if Obama was concerned about domestic political reaction, why was it the U.S. side that first indicated publicly that he might go to Moscow? It seems more likely that the reason for the cancelation was the reason cited: given the standoff on almost all major issues, add the Snowden debacle and clearly nothing positive was going to come out of an Obama trip to Moscow. And as to whose domestic politics are weighing more on the bilateral relationship right now, I would say that Putin wins that one hands down.
     
     
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  • James Schumaker
    Putin may not have actually cancelled a summit, but he did cancel his own participation in one when he sent Medvedev to Camp David in his place for the May 2012 Camp David summit. It's clear that Putin doesn't particularly relish meeting with Obama, and, wounded pride aside, he may not be especially unhappy that there will be no Moscow meeting. That does not mean, however, that there will never be such a meeting. Clearly, even if the Snowden affair had not intervened, prospects for significant progress in Moscow were very slim indeed. Kerry and Hagel will be meeting with their counterparts later this week to continue discussions on a number of issues. That's enough for now. Let there be a meeting between Obama and Putin when there are actually prospects for an agreement that merits a summit.
     
     
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  • Lucia Savchick
    Dmitri, with NGOs essentially unable to work in Russia and the US government pulling away, is there any remaining chance of closer economic relations and cross-cultural ties?
     
     
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  • Steven Pifer
    Very interesting piece, Dmitri, though I believe there is a bigger factor behind the White House decision to cancel the summit: U.S. officials saw no prospect for any progress on big issues such as nuclear arms reductions, missile defense or trade and investment relations. As you note, Obama would pay a domestic price for meeting Putin. The problem was that the White House saw no potential gains to offset that. I very much agree that Snowden was not the reason (or was, at most, a minor factor).

    Regarding my Moscow Times op-ed: I did not write that Russia would become irrelevant for the U.S., but that Putin risks becoming irrelevant for Obama. A subtle but important distinction.
     
     
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  • César De Lucas Ivorra
    I Think in the case Snowden is necessary the International Court Justice to interrogate him about the case.This case is realated to some countries and we need independent judges to clarify the case, and on the another hand it´s important to know the bad actions has produced this spy and if there is another spy or boss behind.
     
     
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  • Lindsay Dorman
    Perhaps this situation can be traced back to the incorrect spelling of 'reset" in Russian when Hilary Clinton presented the "reset" button to Sergei Lavrov
     
     
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  • Stephen Blank
    I know Russian analysts blame domestic US politics for this turn of events. But this is mistaken and harks back to Cold War analogies. Russian policy has much to answer for here. Suffused as it is by wildly exaggerated and endlessly reiterated anti-Americanism and anti-American threat assessments, it is the Russian government, not the US that is trapped in a Cold War time warp. Russia may or may not be irrelevant to the United States, but it has made itself less relevant and valuable and achieved nothing but perhaps the temporary psychological satisfaction of spiting Washington. But that will wear off leaving it with little tangible gains for its fundamental misapprehension of hte US and the West. Indeed, diminishing importance to the West will be part of this long-term sever price.
     
     
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  • Javed Mir
    --Russia has become irrelevant to the United States. Time will test this interesting proposition.--

    In this period of globalization and spill overs, It is not easy to ignore Russia. Creating and leaving the space will means that someone else will fill the vacuum.
     
     
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