Russia and the West: the hard way to a new reset

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On the 6th of March 2009 in Geneva then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov a symbolic button of the reset of U.S.-Russian relations. Ironically, the word “peregruzka”, which the Americans had attached on the makeshift device, means “overload” as opposed to “reset” (the correct word should have been “perezagruzka”)[i]. Unfortunately, as time has shown, overloaded relations are not so easy to reset.

If some years ago it was possible to say that the relationships between Russia and the West were stuck on half-way between enmity and desired strategic partnership – i.e. a difficult partnership – the Ukrainian crisis has shifted them to unpredictable deterrence. The current situation is not anything unexpected. Despite the “reset” in 2010, a tough geopolitical struggle on the Post-Soviet space has been poisoning the conciliatory agenda since the collapse of the USSR. Historically the Russian-Western relations were based on the idea of finding those aspects of practical cooperation, where the controversy was minimal. However, this approach entered into a deep crisis during the NATO enlargement in 1990s and the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Neither the outcomes of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 satisfied both sides. In fact, it was the first attempt of the Russian Federation to revise the results of the Cold War and to stop NATO enlargement. Therefore, the struggle for the Post-Soviet space cannot but came up with a bang after February 2014 in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis became a litmus paper that demonstrated the sense and the depth of challenges. The policy of reset run its course and failed.

Uncertainty in U.S.-Russian relations resulted in a boiling point of the current crisis. Russia and the West, and namely the U.S., still have not managed to conduct a steady dialogue and to reach an understanding. In fact, the lack of positive agenda complicates the possibility of structural interactions on global security issues. In this context the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the NATO-Russia Council meetings (four meetings were held in 2016-2017 for the first time since the relations were frozen in 2014), and some other signs of cooperation have positive meaning.

Russia and the U.S. have started a senior mil-to-mil dialogue over the situation in Syria. For the second time in a month the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford met with Gen. Valery Gerasimov of the Russian Army on March 7[ii]. This time on the sidelines of trilateral meeting with their Turkish counterpart Gen. Halusi Akar in Antalya, Turkey, to enhance senior-level communications and operational deconfliction of military operations in Syria[iii]. Syria was also a matter of discussion during the first direct talks since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis between high-level military officials from Russia and NATO on March 3[iv].

Despite the revival of contacts, Moscow continues to insist that NATO military build-up on the Russia’s western border diminishes regional stability. Russian officials link military transparency and risk reduction in Europe, as well as the mechanisms of arms control, with  NATO to abandon “its military-domination policy”, which Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, describes as the policy aimed at restraining Russia and demonstrating NATO’s military capabilities near Russia’s borders. After the NATO-Russia Council meeting on the level of ambassadors on March 30 he added, that “dialogue for the sake of dialogue will never be fruitful, if we don’t transform it into the particular actions and decisions”[v].

Although the interactions between Russia and the West are far from cooperative, as it was shown above, and the sanctions regime is still relevant, in Russia some aspirations for the normalisation of relations have been connected with the new administration of President Donald Trump.

“Trumpomania”

During the election campaign candidate Trump repeatedly expressed his positive approach to Russia and personally to President Putin, underlining the possibility to find a compromise with Moscow[vi]. So in a telegram by Putin dispatched soon after the victory speech, the hope that the two could work together to end the “crisis” in U.S.-Russian relations was spoken out[vii]. Russian officials celebrated the victory of Trump with champagne and toasts, citing President Obama’s 2008 slogan “Yes, we did it”[viii], although Russia still denies any interference with the U.S. elections.

Indeed, the results of the elections gave momentum to U.S.-Russian relations. The possibility to fix ravaged ties and to start the dialogue on the issues of counter-terrorism, fighting against ISIS, and New START-IV Treaty was real. Nevertheless, simultaneously with progressive disillusionment in Russia, in the U.S. more anti-Russian Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster replaced Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser[ix]. Flynn was forced to resign after just 24 days in office after being accused of discussing sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, before the Trump administration came into office and not disclosing the details of the conversation to Vice President Mike Pence[x]. If not so long ago one could have expected that Putin and Trump would meet this spring, now there is no certainty that they will hold negotiations even during the 2017 G20 Summit in June.

What is to be done?

A systemic crisis needs systemic answers – peeling away mistrust will not be easy. It will require great efforts on the part of both Russian and western officials and willingness to take real risks. Regardless of what policy towards Russia the Trump administration will follow in the future, first of all, it is necessary to admit that each side has its own principles and interests that will never be sacrificed. For Russia this principle is its leadership on the post-soviet territory. Secondly, there is the need of revising all the aspects of mutual mistrust, all the “mistakes” made in more than 25 years. Thirdly, Russia and the West still have a wide range of aspects for cooperation including new security challenges, such as Syria, counterterrorism and non-proliferation, among others. Although there are some obstacles on this track as well. Speaking at the Russian General Staff’s Military Academy on March 23, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov said that Russia was ready to discuss the possible further gradual reduction of nuclear capabilities but on the multilateral basis, so that the other states – not only Russia and the U.S. – must be involved in the process[xi]. Nevertheless, this possibility looks very unlikely due to many factors, including the position of countries such as France or China, for example, and the problem of tactical nuclear weapons.

Despite all this, what is obvious now is that discussions over a new “reset” will focus on disarmament issues. By reestablishing regional military and arms control negotiations, especially in the Baltics, it would be possible to come back step by step to the disarmament measures which are an integral part of the common security. Without confirmation of the current agreements and undertaking further arms control measures, the existing legal frameworks are to be dissolved, and the risk of armed conflicts – including nuclear conflicts – increases.

As stated above, we should not expect a new “reset” anytime soon. The way to it is based on the common interests in providing regional and global security. This mean that talks over the future of the European security architecture should be based more on finding common interests than shared values.

As Russia is not integrated into Euro-Atlantic security structures, it is necessary to provide a stable operation of the NATO-Russia Council, to maintain the existing channels of communication, and to create new ones. By means of practical cooperation it is necessary to find a way out of the current situation and to come to open and fair dialogue on the issues of common concern.


[i] BBC News, Profile: Button gaffe embarrasses Clinton, March 7, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7930047.stm (accessed March 11, 2017)

[ii] U.S. Department of Defense, Profile: Dunford Discusses Syria With Turkish, Russian Counterparts, Match 7, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1104400/dunford-discusses-syria-with-turkish-russian-counterparts (accessed March 11, 2017)

[iii] Ibidem

o-Atlantic security structures. common interests than shared values.

[iv] Radio Free Europe, Profile: NATO, Russia Hold First Top-Level Military Talks In Three Years, March 03, 2017, http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-nato-first-top-military-talks-3-years/28346935.html (accessed March 10, 2017)

[v] ТАСС: Совет Россия – НАТО: открытая дискуссия при недостатке точек соприкосновения, March 31, 2017, http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4141408 (accessed March 31, 2017)

[vi] See, e.g., BBC New, Profile: Trump says Putin “a leader far more than our president”, September 8, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37303057 (accessed March 20, 2017) / ТАСС: Трамп заявил, что настроен на прагматику в переговорах с Россией, May 18, 2016, http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/3290299 (accessed March 21, 2017)

[vii] Президент России: Поздравление Дональду Трампу с победой на выборах Президента Соединённых Штатов Америки, November 9, 2016, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53221 (accessed December 15, 2016)

[viii] The Washington Post, Profile: ‘Yes We Did’: Russia’s establishment basks in Trump’s victory, November 9, 2016,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/11/09/yes-we-did-russias-establishment-basks-in-trumps-victory/ (accessed December 17, 2016)

[ix] The New York Times, Profile: Trump Chooses H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, February 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/us/politics/mcmaster-national-security-adviser-trump.html (accessed March 12, 2017)

[x] The Washington Post, Profile: Michael Flynn resigns as national security adviser, February 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/michael-flynn-resigns-as-national-security-adviser/2017/02/13/0007c0a8-f26e-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.d7390531ef4e (accessed March 12, 2017)

[xi] Газета.ru: Разоружение пока подождет, March 23, 2017, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2017/03/23/10590491.shtml#page5 (accessed March 24, 2017)

Photo credit: AP

About Author

Daria Mironova

Daria Mironova is a PhD student at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her research activities focus on geopolitics, Euro-Atlantic security, NATO’s transformation process, and Western-Russian relationships. Daria holds a Specialist degree in International relations and a Master in Economics. She speaks Russian and English, working knowledge of French, basic knowledge of Ukrainian.

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