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January 11, 2013

Will 'Reset' in US-Russia Relations Continue?

by Andre de Nesnera

President Barack Obama has made better relations with Russia a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

During his first administration, the so-called “reset” in relations brought about concrete results, including a major strategic arms control treaty reducing the number of long-range nuclear weapons.

In another example of cooperation, analysts point to Moscow’s tougher stance on Iran. Russia voted at the United Nations to impose stricter sanctions on Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program - a policy advocated by the United States and other western nations.

The former U.S. defense secretary in the Clinton Administration, William Cohen, said the international community must continue to pressure the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons aspirations.

“Otherwise we are going to continue to see the kind of instability in the region and questions about whether or not there will be any kind of military action in the future,” Cohen said. “We hope that won’t take place but I think all countries have an interest in preventing it and I would say Russia and China and others have to participate in that.”

Moscow cooperation on Afghanistan

Another sign of close U.S.- Russia cooperation, analysts said, was Moscow’s decision to allow American forces to transit through Russia in and out of Afghanistan.

Moscow has also given the United States access to a Russian military base [in Ulyanovsk] about 300 kilometers northwest of the border with Kazakhstan. That logistics hub will play a major role as U.S. combat forces wind down their presence in Afghanistan in the next two years.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who served under Presidents Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush, said Moscow and Washington are no longer enemies as they were during the Cold War.

“If you look round the world, we don’t have areas of inevitable confrontation and conflict either with the Russians or with the Chinese. And we have to try and take advantage of that,” said Scowcroft.

US, Russia disagree on Syria

While there have been positive developments on arms control, Afghanistan and Iran, experts said Washington and Moscow remain divided on several key issues - including how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

The Obama administration has called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Moscow is against that and has vetoed several U.N. Security Council resolutions, several of them imposing economic sanctions on Syria.

But recently, Moscow has distanced itself from Mr. Assad. A deputy foreign minister in Russia, Mikhail Bogdanov, said the Syrian leader is losing more and more control over the country, which could lead to a victory for the opposition.

Missile Shield remains contentious

Another area of disagreement is the Obama administration’s plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe.

Washington and its allies say the shield is designed to protect Europe against a possible missile strike by countries like Iran. Moscow says the anti-missile system - when deployed - could neutralize its strategic missile force, leaving Russia vulnerable to the West.

On another issue, many analysts said the Obama administration has not been strong enough in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on civil society.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, said, “It’s a measure of Putin’s confidence that he can basically act without fear of retaliation from the United States. That has helped embolden him to crack down: crack down on political dissent, crack down in the economic sphere, really trying to establish authority - not in a communist sort of way, but in the traditional fashion of a very, very strong central government.”

US defends human rights

William Cohen said the U.S. must be a strong advocate of human rights.

“We have to constantly raise the issue of human rights, of openness in government, and being critical of any attempt to shut down the voice of the people. But we also have to recognize that we are going to have to deal with Russia, we should do so openly, honestly, said Cohen. “And recognizing that it is not going to be easy, that they have their own views about what is right and what is permissible inside Russia. What we can do is hold up the flame of freedom. And again, we can’t impose it.”

Many experts said it will be interesting to see if during his second term in office, President Obama devotes as much energy to the U.S.-Russia relationship as he did during his first administration.