When he canceled his scheduled summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama effectively terminated his four-year effort to “reset” the bilateral relationship. The meeting of the two presidents at the recent G20 Summit in St Petersburg was civil, but did not change the situation. The exchange of rhetorical barbs has continued, despite Russia’s new initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons.
The failure of the “reset” should come as no surprise, owing to its deeply flawed foundations. Indeed, while the immediate cause of Obama’s decision to cancel the Moscow summit was Putin’s grant of temporary asylum to the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the bilateral relationship has long been faltering. In 2011, after the US and its allies convinced then-Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev not to block a UN resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, they launched a full-scale military bombardment of Libya, which helped to bring down the regime — a move that Russian officials called “deceptive.”
Since Putin’s return to the presidency last year, the relationship has deteriorated further, owing to disagreements over arms control, missile defense, and human rights. For example, late last year, the US Congress imposed sanctions against Russian officials implicated in human-rights abuses, prompting Russia to institute a ban on adoptions by American families.
Moreover, while Obama and Putin may come to terms over the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, US policy still backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, whereas Russia continues to support the regime, owing to fear that its collapse would usher in a radical Sunni-led government — or chaos. Farther east, the US and Russia are not cooperating as expected on Afghanistan’s post-war transition.
However, while disagreement on these issues has undoubtedly weakened US-Russian ties, the real reason that the bilateral relationship is crumbling is more fundamental. Instead of acknowledging geopolitical shifts, and adjusting their relationship accordingly, US and Russian officials remain committed to an obsolete post-Cold War dynamic.
While Russia and the US remain capable of destroying each other many times over, they have had no intention of doing so for a long time. Yet, admitting that there was no longer any threat of direct attack would have been politically impossible in the aftermath of the Cold War, when the bilateral standoff still seemed to be a cornerstone of international stability.
Today, the prospect of either country launching a nuclear attack against the other seems almost ridiculous. Given this, the legacy of the Cold War should give way to issues like ensuring that China’s rise remains peaceful, preventing the current chaos in the Arab world from spreading beyond the region, limiting the scope of nuclear weapons proliferation, and contributing to global efforts to address climate change, water scarcity, food security and cybercrime.
However, rather than pursuing joint initiatives aimed at advancing the two countries’ shared interests in these areas, the US proposed nuclear weapons reductions as the primary mechanism of the diplomatic reset. Russian diplomats, whose outlook also remains largely shaped by the Cold War, seized on the proposal. And, just like that, the old disarmament dynamic was renewed, as if by nostalgic old friends.