Moscow Searches for Strategic Depth in the “Reset”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 187

President Obama and Russian President Medvedev in 2009.
 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s edict on September 23, formalizing sanctions against Iran following the UN Security Council resolution passed on June 9, has rekindled domestic interest in the “reset” policy in US-Russian bilateral relations. In addition to withdrawing from its earlier deal to supply the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, Moscow has also banned other military sales to Tehran, and triggered speculation among some Russian analysts that as a quid pro quo the US may smooth the path to Russian accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Similarly, Russia appears to be expanding the agenda of its bilateral cooperation with the US, prompting additional discussion of the future of the reset. Tatyana Stanovaya, writing in characterized the edict on Iran as Moscow pursuing the “reset” as a “strategic choice,” yet in the same article the enduring nature of the reset was questioned (, September 28).
Suspicion among a significant part of the Russian elite, according to Stanovaya, renders them skeptical about the reality of the reset. Indeed, Stanovaya cited an interview to Kommersant by Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, saying that he wanted to “believe” in the sincerity of US President, Barack Obama, concerning the reset, “I do not know what he can and what he cannot do; I want to see whether he is successful or not. But he wants to. I actually have the sense that this is his sincere position,” Putin explained. Putin also raised concern about the US rearming Georgia, which it is not, and alluded to “promises” in the past that NATO would not expand eastward as a “swindle” (, September 28).
Moscow pursuing the reset as a strategic choice is therefore complicated by personality, recent history, and lack of consensus on how to proceed as well as perception and misperception on both sides. In Moscow, there is no short supply of pessimism. Alexei Fenenko, a researcher in the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Security, observed that the US and Russia have tended to view each other through nuclear missile sights, and suggested they will remain “potential enemies,” which was a factor in the respective formulation of their military doctrines (RIA Novosti, October 11). US analysts are also grappling with the future direction of the reset, such as Emiliano Alessandri, in a Brookings Institute briefing paper argued that the reset needed reloading, deepening its nature and shifting attention to Europe, co-opting other countries into the continued resetting of relations with Russia (, October 14). That process may have commenced in Deauville today (October 18) with the trilateral security summit between Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev, though Washington has yet to lend its support to such initiatives (The Moscow Times, October 18).
Whatever euphemism is preferred, substance is need. Sergei Karaganov, the Chairman of the Moscow-based Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, revealed growing concerns in Moscow about the reset, in an article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta on September 29, (later republished by RIA Novosti). Karaganov revised his earlier assessment that the reset was not real, elaborated the achievements of the “honeymoon” period in US-Russian relations, providing an overview of its progress. Russian concern that the reset may fail is rooted in domestic US politics: Moscow fears that Obama may not be reelected and that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) might not be passed by the US Senate (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 29, RIA Novosti, October 11).
Karaganov stressed that signing START III represented a real achievement of the reset, though asserting the American liberal dream of “global zero” in which “only in this non-nuclear or little-nuclear world can the US politically realize its non-nuclear superiority,” has been quietly buried. As one advisor to the Russian Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, told Jamestown, Moscow views a world free of nuclear weapons as one in which the US can do as it pleases, and this is intolerable for Russia. Moreover, in Karaganov’s view the possibility of placing tactical nuclear weapons reduction on the negotiating table has also been buried. Among the positive steps in the “reset” featured cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, though on the latter Karaganov returned to the theme that the nonproliferation genie is out of the bottle and efforts directed towards Iran either miss this point or are simply too late. The bilateral dialogue occurring in the framework of the president’s commission was praised though criticized for its shortcomings, not least the “intellectual unwillingness” on the part of Americans to discuss Medvedev’s European security treaty. However, Karaganov also indicated the main structural weakness with the reset: “almost the entire current and in fact proposed agenda for Russian-American relations is directed toward problems of the past.” There is an absence of any orientation towards the future, apart from tentative discussion on missile defense cooperation between the US and NATO with Russia (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 29). 
The implication in these “conclusions,” is that any effort to resurrect such ambitious schemes will destroy the reset. While space restricted detailed discussion of the potential areas for developing future interaction, Karaganov, highlighted one particular strategic issue: the unstoppable rise of China, which is also expressing increasing economic interest even in the Arctic. “The formation of a relative and perhaps even virtual vacuum of security around an increasingly powerful China: in East and South Asia, a new problem is added to old ones. And it must not be resolved with the old methods –the creation of a system of military deterrence. What is needed is the rapid creation of a system of security for the region where the US and Russia can and should play an important role,” Karaganov suggested (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 29).
Fearing that the reset may run out of momentum, or fall victim to domestic US politics, some Russian analysts are seeking strategic depth to an enduring reset based upon establishing long term shared interests. The reset may ultimately fail due to becoming captive to old agendas, “But without a view focused on the future, we will constantly be tossed back by these old agendas. Yet, with a new one, we will be able at least to try to build truly innovative and not simply ‘reset’ or old-style –normal– relations between Russia and the US,” Karaganov maintained (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 29).