The Russia-US “Reset” and Medvedev’s Non-Leadership

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 129

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Ray's Hell Burger Restaurant in Washinton, DC on June 24th, 2010.

President, Dmitry Medvedev, can consider his visit to the US successful, but it was still not good enough to put relations on a sure footing. He enjoyed new gadgets in Silicon Valley and hamburgers with US President, Barack Obama, he tried to make the best impression and utilized every PR opportunity. Still, every counterpart wanted to be convinced of his ability to lead –and was not. It mattered little that Medvedev’s answer to the traditional question about running for re-election in 2012 was perhaps the least convincing in the series: “If by the time this decision will have to be made the plans I have outlined today will come to fruition … and if I still have the enthusiasm to continue this work…” (Vedomosti,, June 25). What really mattered was the lack of fresh ideas for developing the successful “reset” into a real partnership.

The main content of this US-initiated effort at rehabilitating the bilateral relationship consisted of talks on reducing strategic arsenals, and with the conclusion of the Prague Treaty in April, it has been exhausted. It is unclear how to proceed on this track since Washington is not keen to discuss limitations on strategic defense that worries Russia, and Moscow shows little interest in talks on tactical nuclear weapons, which are of great concern to many European states (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 2). Iran was another focus of the “reset,” and the UN Security Council resolution approved in May, signified a major collective achievement. Moscow, however, was very upset by the far tougher sanctions introduced by the EU and the US, and while Medvedev has swallowed his objections after Obama’s elucidation, it is clear that the limit of cooperation has been reached (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 30).

What has spoiled the impression of maturing trust that Medvedev tried to project is the hugely odd “spy story” that broke just a few days after the visit. Commentary in the Russian media on the unprecedented exposure of a network of undercover agents emphasized the miniscule output of this long-running operation (Novaya Gazeta,, June 30;, July 1). There has been no reaction from the presidential administration, but Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, assumed a light attitude by telling former President, Bill Clinton, at the start of their informal meeting: “I hear your police have become carried away and put people in jail… But that is their job after all; really, they are all just doing their job” (Kommersant, June 30). The real point in Putin’s irony is that he knows that Medvedev was not aware of the existence of that or any other spy rings, but Obama certainly was, so the treat in “Ray’s Hell Burger” that introduced Medvedev to the “spirit of America” had a rather peculiar subtext (Vremya Novostei, June 1).

Medvedev’s plan for cultivating bilateral ties is centered on his economic agenda, and the promise to break the deadlock with Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) by September 30 is of crucial importance for advancing this (Ekspert, June 25). There were, however, many such promises before, and it is certain that the “spy scandal,” ridiculous as it is, has destroyed any chance that the US Congress could revoke the Jackson-Vanik amendment (1974) that denies Russia “most favored nation” status. Putin has implicitly, but firmly, downplayed the priority for economic ties with the West, asserting at a government meeting that Russia’s “historic choice” was “to follow the road of integration with our next-door neighbors… with whom the Russians existed in a single state for centuries.” His pet-project of a Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus is, however, stumbling over the trade quarrels with the latter (Kommersant, July 2).

Facing the lack of enthusiasm amongst big investors Medvedev tries to deliver a success story of miraculous blossoming of the “innovation-village” in Skolkovo outside Moscow and urges the Duma to approve special legislation that would shelter it from the usual corrupt administrative regulations. Some Western high-tech companies are ready to take his word as a guarantee for their pilot-projects, but most Russian entrepreneurs remain skeptical about the prompting of Vladislav Surkov, the curator of this virtual development, who is also the main ideologist of “managed democracy” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 2).

Medvedev made the Skolkovo project a key point in the budget address that he presented after a three-month delay, but with little additional work (Vedomosti, June 30). His emphasis on reducing the budget deficit by half broadly corresponds to the austerity mood that prevailed at the G20 summit in Canada, where Obama tried in vain to argue for a more pro-active course. The addiction to “easy money” in Russian big business, bureaucracy, and society at large, runs so deep, however, that Finance Minister, Aleksei Kudrin, has only a slim chance to keep expenses under control (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 2). In fact, at every stop during the Far Eastern tour last weekend, Medvedev distributed giveaways, and Putin tends to show even greater generosity in his regional excursions.

There is, nevertheless, a more than stylistic difference in their populism. Medvedev seeks to sweeten the bitter medicine of overcoming dependency upon oil export revenues that he advocates rather than prescribes. Putin tries to demonstrate that the fundamentals of the “petro-state” remain sound despite the turbulence of the global crisis. There is a strong demand for “more-of-the-same” in the welfare-oriented society and in the predatory bureaucracy, so Putin’s message is conveyed easily –and his authority remains unshakable. Medvedev’s discourse of “modernization” remains foreign, and his attempts to encourage innovations are treated with the same ironic indifference as Nikita Khrushchev’s orders to introduce corn after his “historic” visit to the US in 1959. Medvedev is often reduced to complaining about the sabotage of his orders, which only signals to bureaucrats opposed to modernization that real executive power remains out of his grasp. He cannot hope that his words will suddenly acquire the convincing weight of deeds, but merely positions himself as the only available “Plan B” (or “alternative M”) for the very possible meltdown of the over-grown super-structure of Putin’s regime, which has a short life expectancy on the current plateau of oil prices.