Reloading Time: How Many Buttons Do We Need To Reset U.S.-Russia Relations

The world holds its breath while watching two unclenched fists, in Washington and in Moscow, reaching for the reset buttons.

The catchy term "the reset button" that Vice President Joe Biden coined at this year's Munich Security Conference has completely eclipsed his speech and created an impression that it was all about U.S.-Russia relations.  It was not.  First and foremost, Biden's address has been an eloquent call to restore the trans-Atlantic dialogue damaged by the foreign policy unilateralism of the Bush administration.  Speaking directly to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy— the leaders of two European countries most critical of the United States in the past — Biden told them exactly what both wanted to hear:

"[W]e will engage.  We will listen.  We will consult."

The Russian leadership would be wise to pay attention to this part of Biden's speech.  The Kremlin should realize that one of the reasons why Russia wasn't isolated or even sanctioned in the aftermath of the August war with Georgia was Russia's ability to play up the differences between the United States and the countries of "Old" Europe.  True, these differences are real and won't go away simply because of a change of a tone.  Yet, should the Obama administration succeed in bringing Washington, Berlin, and Paris closer together, Russia's space for maneuvering  in its relations with the West will shrink precipitously.

I find it remarkable that ten months into his presidency — and getting ready for his first face-to-face meeting with Obama in London, in April — President Medvedev hasn't delivered a single policy message articulating his vision of the future of U.S.-Russia relations.  Unless you count his largely PR appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, in November, as one.

Early on, Medvedev made it clear that he wasn't going to waste his time building any meaningful relationship with the outgoing President Bush.  At the same time, he used every opportunity to publicly criticize the United States for fomenting the world economic crisis and for political and military support of the Saakashvili regime in Georgia. 

Medvedev's hostile attitude toward Washington culminated in his state-of-the-nation address, on November 5,  when he promised to deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region of Russia to neutralize American BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.  The timing of this statement — just hours after Obama's electoral victory was announced – led to suggestions that Medvedev's message was intentionally unfriendly and even "provocative." 

Then, Medvedev has made a sudden U-turn.  Addressing the CFR audience just ten days later, he expressed Russia's desire to return to a constructive dialog with the United States.  In particular, Medvedev spoke positively of the "U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration" — signed by then-Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi, in April 2008 — which, in his words, "reflects all what has happened in Russia-US relations over eight years." 

And here is my point.  The whole foundation of U.S.-Russia relations, on the Russian side of it – with all its achievements (however meager) and formidable problems — has been built by Putin, with Medvedev having no visible imprint on it.

This is especially troubling, given the wide-spread belief, in the West, that the real decision-making power in Russia, including in the international area, rests with Putin.  Medvedev cannot risk undermining the impact of his maiden meeting with the U.S. president by allowing members of Obama's entourage to even question Medvedev's authority to make independent foreign policy decisions.  

(After his return from Munich, Biden sat down with The Washington Post's David Broder.  Here is a line from Broder's report:

 "Biden said that there is a desire in both capitals [Washington and Moscow] to find a mechanism for continuing bilateral negotiations, but that no specific arrangements will be made until Obama meets with Putin."

Biden's propensity for gaffes is well known.  However, if he's unsure whom his boss is going to meet with, then what about the rest of the Washington foreign policy crowd?)

To "insert" himself into the cockpit of U.S.-Russia negotiation jet – and, yes, to silence any whispers about who's in control — Medvedev should give an interview to a top U.S. media outlet and present in depth his position on all major aspects of the relationship.

In addition, as I argued before, it's time for Medvedev to bring new faces to the Smolensky Square and to replace Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, who's been on the job since 2004 and needs some rest.  This might be temporally inconvenient given Lavrov's already planned meeting, in March, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But who said that reloading is always convenient?  

The dialog between Washington and Moscow is too important to rely on one reset button.  It takes two to tango.  It takes two buttons to reset the U.S.-Russia relations. 

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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2 Responses to Reloading Time: How Many Buttons Do We Need To Reset U.S.-Russia Relations

  1. Ballroom dancing has found a definite niche Eugene. Enjoy!
    The “it takes two to tango” line is quite common and applies well on the issue of Russo-American relations. So that there’s no misunderstanding, there’s no need for you to apologize. I’m most likely not the first, second or third to have used that saying relative to Russo-American relations.
    On the other hand, I’m curious about how a rejected NYT article submission of mine from the last decade was possibly used. Its title was “Brewing a Russian Backlash” (a form of it was later posted elsewhere). Within a couple of weeks of that submission, Tom Friedman came out with an article having a similar gist and the utilized term “brewing backlash.” Folks in the business informed me about how ideas get picked up and used by such submissions.
    I think I understand your points on the independence recognition. However, minus that recognition, nothing would keep Russia from doing what it’s currently undertaking in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s government expresses opposition to the Russian military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia regardless of the independence recognition. On a somewhat related note, Moldova recently expressed the view that the Russian military should leave the disputed territory of Pridnestrovie, whose independence isn’t recognized by Russia. This doesn’t prevent the Kremlin from interacting with Pridnestrovie’s government. For these and earlier mentioned reasons, I’ve a questionable (put mildly) view of the independence recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
    On good domestic policy versus bad foreign policy, I see that recognition falling in such a category. Polls indicate enthusiastic Russian support for the independence recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
    All things considered, I remain sympathetic to the basis for Medvedev’s state-of-the-nation address. Some inaccurate and not so nice things were said against the Russian government by Obama during his campaign. Besides the previous ice hockey analogy, there’s the baseball one about how the pitcher stands up for his teammates after the other team’s pitcher throws a bean ball.
    I say all this while agreeing with your point about not giving unnecessary fodder to the Russia bashers out there. It can be a fine line between taking an appropriate response versus being disrespectfully treated and letting it go.
    This leads to what someone once said to me about some of the Russia bashers out there. If the Russians (in the collective sense of the Russian medical community) were to discover a cancer cure, some would blast them for not having discovered it sooner. There will always be a core of folks out there who will repeatedly display a one-sidedly inaccurate perception. One of them who I periodically interact with essentially said White Russian or Red Russian, they’re the same (the “same” taking the form of a negative). The good Russian for him is to most Russians akin as to how Gus Hall was viewed by most Americans.

  2. Gotcha on that troop deployment number point Eugene.
    Very respectfully said: the thing is that SO’s “independence” isn’t recognized by the OSCE. Therefore, Russia is “denied” either way, while at the same time, in reality, being able to act in SO and Abkhazia without the independence recognition.
    The Georgian government’s brazen strike on SO changed certain realities. Primitive though the saying is: “might makes right.” On this point: in the post-Cold War world, Russia doesn’t stand out so much when compared to at least one other country.
    In the former Georgian SSR, I would’ve preferred Russia to play more a version of neocon/neolib diplomacy. This point refers to what I earlier said about how Milosevic was politically unseated with neocon/neolib support.
    The matter of “permission” on attacking others and sending in troops is selectively applied.
    As an example, I would’ve liked to have seen Russia make a firm stand to the NATO bombing against Yugoslavia. At the same time, there’re certain unfortunate realities.
    The Russian troop deployment into Kosovo towards the end of that bombing campaign was clumsy. Either follow thru or don’t even attempt such action. The excuse for Russia not following up had to do with it being denied over flight permission via several countries.
    On the other hand, did NATO receive over flight permission from Yugoslavia to bomb that country? NATO also didn’t have a UN mandate to do what it did. On top of that the US government disrespected UN Security Council Resolution 1244 by leading the recognition charge of Kosovo’s “independence.”

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Reloading Time: How Many Buttons Do We Need To Reset U.S.-Russia Relations

The world holds its breath while watching two unclenched fists, in Washington and in Moscow, reaching for the reset buttons.

The catchy term "the reset button" that Vice President Joe Biden coined at this year's Munich Security Conference has completely eclipsed his speech and created an impression that it was all about U.S.-Russia relations.  It was not.  First and foremost, Biden's address has been an eloquent call to restore the trans-Atlantic dialogue damaged by the foreign policy unilateralism of the Bush administration.  Speaking directly to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy— the leaders of two European countries most critical of the United States in the past — Biden told them exactly what both wanted to hear:

"[W]e will engage.  We will listen.  We will consult."

The Russian leadership would be wise to pay attention to this part of Biden's speech.  The Kremlin should realize that one of the reasons why Russia wasn't isolated or even sanctioned in the aftermath of the August war with Georgia was Russia's ability to play up the differences between the United States and the countries of "Old" Europe.  True, these differences are real and won't go away simply because of a change of a tone.  Yet, should the Obama administration succeed in bringing Washington, Berlin, and Paris closer together, Russia's space for maneuvering  in its relations with the West will shrink precipitously.

I find it remarkable that ten months into his presidency — and getting ready for his first face-to-face meeting with Obama in London, in April — President Medvedev hasn't delivered a single policy message articulating his vision of the future of U.S.-Russia relations.  Unless you count his largely PR appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, in November, as one.

Early on, Medvedev made it clear that he wasn't going to waste his time building any meaningful relationship with the outgoing President Bush.  At the same time, he used every opportunity to publicly criticize the United States for fomenting the world economic crisis and for political and military support of the Saakashvili regime in Georgia. 

Medvedev's hostile attitude toward Washington culminated in his state-of-the-nation address, on November 5,  when he promised to deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region of Russia to neutralize American BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.  The timing of this statement — just hours after Obama's electoral victory was announced – led to suggestions that Medvedev's message was intentionally unfriendly and even "provocative." 

Then, Medvedev has made a sudden U-turn.  Addressing the CFR audience just ten days later, he expressed Russia's desire to return to a constructive dialog with the United States.  In particular, Medvedev spoke positively of the "U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration" — signed by then-Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi, in April 2008 — which, in his words, "reflects all what has happened in Russia-US relations over eight years." 

And here is my point.  The whole foundation of U.S.-Russia relations, on the Russian side of it – with all its achievements (however meager) and formidable problems — has been built by Putin, with Medvedev having no visible imprint on it.

This is especially troubling, given the wide-spread belief, in the West, that the real decision-making power in Russia, including in the international area, rests with Putin.  Medvedev cannot risk undermining the impact of his maiden meeting with the U.S. president by allowing members of Obama's entourage to even question Medvedev's authority to make independent foreign policy decisions.  

(After his return from Munich, Biden sat down with The Washington Post's David Broder.  Here is a line from Broder's report:

 "Biden said that there is a desire in both capitals [Washington and Moscow] to find a mechanism for continuing bilateral negotiations, but that no specific arrangements will be made until Obama meets with Putin."

Biden's propensity for gaffes is well known.  However, if he's unsure whom his boss is going to meet with, then what about the rest of the Washington foreign policy crowd?)

To "insert" himself into the cockpit of U.S.-Russia negotiation jet – and, yes, to silence any whispers about who's in control — Medvedev should give an interview to a top U.S. media outlet and present in depth his position on all major aspects of the relationship.

In addition, as I argued before, it's time for Medvedev to bring new faces to the Smolensky Square and to replace Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, who's been on the job since 2004 and needs some rest.  This might be temporally inconvenient given Lavrov's already planned meeting, in March, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But who said that reloading is always convenient?  

The dialog between Washington and Moscow is too important to rely on one reset button.  It takes two to tango.  It takes two buttons to reset the U.S.-Russia relations. 

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reloading Time: How Many Buttons Do We Need To Reset U.S.-Russia Relations

  1. You’ve offered another full plate of insightful thoughts Eugene.
    Going into his current job, Medvedev wasn’t known for foreign policy adeptness. In case you missed this article:
    Russia Admits “Mistakes” Made in Gas Dispute
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20090219.IBRUSSIA19/TPStory/Business#
    I’m reminded of someone saying that it’s not always good to admit wrong, given how some will twist such an acknowledgement.
    As I’ve said elsewhere and reiterate again for the purpose of seeking informative follow-up that can shed additional light on the subject:
    So far during Medvedev’s presidency, the independence recognition given to South Ossetia and Abkhazia is arguably the most questionable move. It seemed to catch a number of folks in the Russian foreign policy establishment by surprise. Some off the record and unconfirmed comments claim it was Medvedev’s call. Regardless, that move is contradictory to a more suave diplomacy that would’ve withheld on the recognition – in order to have Georgian attention focussed on Sakkashvili’s blunder – rather than having that population perturbed with the independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A number of folks note how Russo-Georgian haven’t been so historically bad. Note how Western NGOs quieted down on Kosovo’s independence when they were backing the Djindjic-Kostunica coalition to unseat Milosevic. The Russian game plan should be predicated on having as much influence as possible in the former Georgian SSR. The Kremlin has this policy in relation to the former Moldavian SSR. In the former Georgian SSR, Saakashvili’s manner triggered the (IMO) questionable recognition response.
    Medvedev’s hard line state-of-the nation-address can be looked at in another way. It was no doubt in reply to some of the comments made by newly elected President Barack Obama during the US presidential campaign. American mass media punditry spins Medvedev as starting things off on a wrong track. This view overlooks some of Obama’s comments during his bid for the American presidency. In the sport of ice hockey, it is understood that chippy play can result in payback. This applies in other instances. In the past, I’ve used the “it takes two to tango” quote when describing Russo-American relations.
    Things have noticeably calmed down for now. Let’s see how this carries.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    So much appreciate your thoughtful, as usual, comments.
    I agree that the independence recognition of S Ossetia and Abkhazia may seem premature. Or, putting it a bit cynically, giving away the best bargaining chip too early in the game.
    Having said that, I see two major reasons for such a speedy recognition. First, Russia can keep whatever number of troops there “legally” — on the “invitation” of the governments of “independent” states. Otherwise, Georgia would have insisted that the troops in SO and A were “occupying” its sovereign territory.
    Second, when the U.S. and the EU were willing to put money into “restoration” of Georgia (by the way, what have happened to all these promises now, in the midst of the crisis?), the tab of restoring flattened Tskhinvali was supposed to be picked up solely by Russia. Why should Russia put its money into SO if later, Georgians will come and take it back?
    As for Medvedev’s state-of-the-nation address, I’ll be blunt: it was good domestic policy, but bad foreign. Obama has enough Russia bashers in his entourage. There is no reason to “appease” them without need.
    My apology for using “it takes two to tango” without proper references. I honestly didn’t know that you had used it before. The line came to me independently after my regular ballroom dance class with my wife🙂
    Regards,
    Eugene

  3. “Georgia’s government expresses opposition to the Russian military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia regardless of the independence recognition.”
    Mike, I totally agree. But, the OSCE mandate allowed Russia to keep only 300(?) troops in SO. Now, that SO is supposedly independent, Russia can deploy whatever number of troops it wants — counting in thousands right now. See the difference?
    “If the Russians … were to discover a cancer cure, some would blast them for not having discovered it sooner”
    This is absolutely BRILLIANT!!!
    Best,
    Eugene

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