Reset is still hot, but will it move to the back burner?

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Washington in July clearly demonstrated that, despite certain lack of headway on tough bilateral issues such as missile defense and Russia’s WTO accession, the reset policy is still bearing fruit. A number of intergovernmental agreements, including the long-anticipated adoption treaty and a formal announcement of upcoming softening of visa regimes, helped keep things on track, despite the dark clouds gathering over the “Magnitsky List” — a blacklist of Russian officials who will not be allowed to travel to the United States for their alleged criminal involvement in the case.

Alexander Gasyuk, Washington correspondent for Rossiyskaya Gazeta and contributor to Russia Beyond the Headlines, spoke to Brookings Institution Russia experts Steven Pifer and Fiona Hill about the outlook for the reset.


Russia Beyond the Headlines: Is it right to say that the reset policy has peaked and that further progress is unlikely? 


Steven Pifer: When we speak about reset policy we are talking first and foremost about the new START treaty; much more cooperation on Iran that people would have expected only 3 to 4 years ago; and cooperation on Afghanistan. Even the missile defense is one area where at least the pace of rhetoric is not as it used to be several years ago. Tensions have now gone out from the issue. 


Both sides seem to keep the door open to do a deal. When we talk to people in the Presidential Administration, at least on the arms control side, there is a focus on missile defense cooperation.

My sense is that on the Russian side there seem to be a slowing on the question of further nuclear arms reductions, perhaps because Moscow would like to see the outcome of the 2012 elections in the United States. This is unfortunate because the next negotiations will take at least several years--so you can start now and you still probably won’t finish in 2015.  


RBTH: What’s the main problem with missile defense. Is it a lack of trust which still exists?


S.P.: On questions related to practical cooperation--for example on transparency and joint exercises which NATO and Russia have done in the past, and things like data fusion centers which combine date from early warning radars, there is quite a bit convergence. What is really holding things up on the Russian side is a desire for more predictability on what might happen in the future with the U.S. missile defense system. So here we have a Russian proposal for the treaty with legal guaranties and that’s not doable in Washington. The problem U.S. administration has is that we have a Senate where the missile defense conversation is kind of something beyond reality. It has become so ideological that anything which limits missile defense simply can’t pass the Senate.


Moreover, say we sign this treaty today and ten years from now in a hypothetical crisis we are about to shoot missiles at one another. Is an American president or Russian President going to say, Don’t use our missile defense to protect our country in such circumstances? So it doesn’t really have any significance. 


I understand Russian concerns about what happens to American missile defense in, let’s say, 2020. But it seems that you can actually begin this practical cooperation and you have a center where there are NATO, American and Russian military working together seven days a week 24 hours a day--that will mean a lot of transparency. And I think the Russian military as a result will understand that this is not a threat. But now the question is, Can we find a way to get over the current bumps to get to this level of practical cooperation?


Fiona Hill: The kinds of issues we’ve got at this stage now in the relationship goes beyond the initial idea of reset, which was trying to find things we can work together at and start working on them. This is very difficult and complicated, especially in the political context as the governments in United States and Russia are looking at 2012 as an election year. Such things like detailed negotiations on missile defense or arms control have traditionally taken years. We need a national level agreement that the relationship is important to continue in this trajectory and find ways of carrying this over.


RBTH: What do you believe will be the fate of the Jackson-Vanik amendment?


F.H.: The Obama Administration is trying to graduate Russia from this amendment, but we have here a situation with real checks and balances, a system which is never fully appreciated by many in Moscow. While the U.S. executive branch is sincerely seeking to solve the problem of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, we have already entered the election politics period in this country now, and giving the current Administration any kind of seeming success on one of its priorities is not in the interests of certain people on Capitol Hill. Today's discussions on the Jackson-Vanik amendment do no longer have anything to do with Russia, it’s all about legislative domestic U.S. politics. That is why the White House is trying to find other things to give to the Congress as a concession which is not something the Russian government has to think about too often.   


RBTH: What can Washington and Moscow do to keep the reset a success?


F.H.: We all know that in Moscow and Washington there are a lot of people with different interests. And some of them are not in favor of improving the relationship, because their positions in the past were bolstered by confrontation. Today in the capitals of both countries one could hear complaints that allegedly it was their country that gave a lot to the partner, but received nothing in return. And it becomes a problem, especially during elections, when all major political players and Congress members would like to capitalize on that.


So for those who have really benefited from the reset, they have to make the case that this is about mutual benefits. They have to craft an effective message that we are in a better place than before.


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