Can U.S. Truly Press 'Reset' Button With Russia?

Can U.S. Truly Press 'Reset' Button With Russia?

By Ian Bremmer & Alexander Kliment - October 20, 2009

The fall of the Berlin Wall ended the nearly apocalyptic Moscow-Washington rivalry that cut across global geopolitics for nearly half a century. But after the U.S. demonstrably won the Cold War 20 years ago, successive U.S. administrations have lost the Russians ever since. Today, Moscow and Washington elites glower at each other over a host of global disputes, and Russia, far from blossoming into the pro-Western, market-oriented democracy that the 1990s shock therapists dreamed of, has developed into a quasi-authoritarian petro-state at home, guided by zero-sum revisionist ambitions abroad.

So what went wrong? The Obama administration's ability to pull off a "reset" with this new, pricklier Russia hinges on the answer to this question. As a result of different post-Cold War experiences, Washington and Moscow have come to hold fundamentally divergent views of what is wrong with the relationship, and what a "reset" means.


The West has unambiguously benefited from winning the Cold War, not least in the expansion of a new Europe that is more peaceful and prosperous than at any point in history. But further east, the grand ambitions of the early 1990s -- when the West believed that a cocktail of historical inevitability and Western hectoring would bring markets and democracy to Russia -- quickly collapsed amidst mutual disappointment and frayed priorities on both sides. Then, despite President George W. Bush's musings on the mettle of Vladimir Putin's soul, the common threat of terrorism failed to rekindle the relationship, and it quickly froze over amidst a host of bitter disagreements on global issues: Iraq and Iran; ballistic missile treaties and ballistic missile defenses; pipelines and politics; revolutions Rose and Orange. In a Bush administration that pursued its goals with a nearly messianic unilateral fervor, the erstwhile evil empire was neglected altogether.

But if Boris Yeltsin's Russia had to roll over in the face of Washington's highhandedness, Putin's Russia didn't. Controlled largely by a new coterie of former spooks who were most enraged by Russia's 1990s chaos and weakness, Russia's global ambitions soared along with oil prices, and Moscow adopted a distinctly zero-sum, revisionist view of the world aimed squarely at Washington -- any setbacks that could be inflicted on the U.S. were, and still are, seen as victories for Russia. And herein lies the problem with the "reset." The Americans hope that a different tone in Washington will lead to different policy in Moscow. But the Kremlin understands a "reset" chiefly as a chance for the Americans to "reset" past policy slights against Russia as a prerequisite for making nice more generally.

So how does Washington approach and work with this kind of Russia? As an energy superpower with a formidable nuclear arsenal, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a deepening relationship with China, Russia simply cannot be ignored. For the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, a new relationship can't be built on the shifting rubble of the Berlin Wall. Progress will require a new understanding of Russia on several fronts.

For the foreseeable future Russia will remain a prickly, zero-sum, revisionist power internationally, and domestically there is currently little prospect of immediate progress beyond the weakly institutionalized, quasi-authoritarian politics that holds sway today. Sadly, at the moment the U.S. has little power, hard or soft, to change either of those trajectories directly. So the question of what cannot be done is at least as important as the question of what can.

First, Washington and the West must pick their battles carefully. The Obama administration has wisely decided to quietly place NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine on the backburner, seeing that little could be achieved there in the medium term without provoking a searing backlash from Russia. The same is true of pressing too hard on the construction of Eurasian pipelines that circumvent Russian energy infrastructure, particularly in a price environment that makes grand new projects political rather than economical.

Second, Washington should not expect neat quid pro quo agreements on key issues. The Kremlin's zero-sum view of global geopolitics, coupled with the Russian elite's quiet aggrieved understanding of the country's real limitations, means that today's Russia is in a sense more interested in holding trump cards than in actually playing them. Nowhere is this more true than on Iran, where the Kremlin styles itself as the "gatekeeper" to resolution of the nuclear issue, but appears little inclined to push the gate. And so the Obama administration's move on missile defense -- which in fairness probably had much more to do with nerves in Tel Aviv than misgivings in Moscow -- was laudable but not because of any prospects on the Russian front.

But aside from careful treading on these grand issues, there are smaller opportunities. At the bilateral level, the West can focus on distinct issues of obvious mutual interest. Stabilizing Afghanistan is not only a top U.S. objective, but it is also critical for a Moscow that is historically paranoid about instability threats to Russia's "soft underbelly." Cooperation on civilian nuclear technology, and in particular opening U.S. markets for Russian nuclear fuel, is also gaining momentum that should not be squandered, not least because there are some oblique connections with the Iran issue. And on the strategic nuclear level, the mutual support shown by both Washington and Moscow for negotiation of a new START treaty reflects the importance that both capitals attach to this issue. Lastly, delineation of the Arctic Circle could emerge as an important area of mutual interest, not because of the natural resources there -- which won't be profitably recoverable for many decades -- but because of the potentially wildly lucrative new shipping routes along Russia's northern coast that are opening up as the polar ice recedes.

At a more strategic level, there are opportunities for the U.S. to harness its strong ties with Europe and its relatively positive relationship with Turkey to think more inclusively about how to craft an architecture of strategic and energy relations between Europe and Russia, particularly as new gas technologies provide the Europeans with increased leverage in what's been an oft-strained relationship.

Lastly, part of the reason that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been so volatile politically is that it is tempered by very few economic or financial moorings of the kind that densely crosshatch Moscow's relations with Europe and East Asia. While the U.S. will never overtake these markets, globalization notwithstanding, geography still matters, and there is broad scope for increased investment and cooperation between Russia and U.S. business. In this connection, it is critical to point out that U.S. businesses are held back largely by justifiable concerns about the political risks of doing business in Russia.


Looking back over the two decades that have passed since the Soviet empire shuddered, crumbled, and ultimately collapsed, it is tempting to view the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations since then as a failure. And set against the understandably unrealistic expectations that arose in the early 1990s, it most certainly has been. But after two decades, perhaps there is still room for progress in a relationship that is less idealistic, more sober and, after 20 years of dashed hopes and missed opportunities, perhaps more limited in its aims.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is co-author, with Preston Keat, of the book "The Fat Tail: The Power of Political Knowledge in an Uncertain World." Alexander Kliment is a Eurasia analyst at Eurasia Group. They can be reached via e-mail at

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