Structure and context in US-Russian relations at the outset of Barack Obama's second term

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the Oval Office, March 1, 2013. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken listen at right.

Article Highlights

  • Putin doctrine underscores Russia's quest for regional dominance.

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  • Time to examine US-Russia relations--do we need a "strategic pause"?

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  • Obama's Russia reset failed. New strategy is needed.

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As US President Barack Obama begins a second term, it is worth asking what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy goals are and what US priorities toward Russia should be. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin’s foreign policy has increasingly been guided by what might be called the “Putin Doctrine”: prioritizing the recovery for the Russian state of the political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost in the Soviet collapse. Accordingly, Moscow sought to assert Russian dominance in the post-Soviet space; gain control over the country’s politics, economy, courts, and key media; and boost the regime’s legitimacy through a “besieged fortress” propaganda campaign with increasingly anti-American overtones. Although the Putin Doctrine has proven compatible with some of the key priorities of Obama’s first-term foreign policy, the common ground has shrunk, leaving the United States to choose between revisiting the reset policy or taking a strategic pause to rethink the direction of its Russia policy while continuing frank dialogue with the Kremlin and cooperating where possible. Regardless of the specific course, however, the overarching metagoal ought to be helping Russia progress toward genuine democracy.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Several significant geostrategic and moral considerations shape US-Russian relations, including Russia’s unofficial “Putin Doctrine,” which asserts the recovery of political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union.
  • The Kremlin’s growing authoritarianism, quest for regional dominance, and anti-American propaganda to bolster the legitimacy of the regime have shrunk the common ground between the two nations that formed the basis for Obama’s first-term reset policy. 
  • Instead of attempting a second reset, likely to fail under current conditions, the US might consider a strategic pause to rethink its relations with Moscow while continuing to assist in any way possible the emergence of a free, prosperous, and stable Russia.


As the Obama administration sits down to chart its second-term policy toward Russia, now is a good time take stock of where we are, why we are here, and where we are likely headed. Instead of going down the long list of issues in US-Russian relations, it might be more useful to select a few more-or-less permanent (or, at least, recurring) geostrategic objectives and moral imperatives that at once compel and constrain policymakers on both sides—the structural framework within which the US-Russian relations unfold.

Of course, the current occupants of the White House and the Kremlin, their ideologies, and the policy priorities that these ideologies prompt matter a great deal as well. These variables shape the more immediate context of US-Russian relations and account for policies that emphasize some elements within the structural framework and diminish the importance of others. Among the key contextual factors, for example, are the “Putin Doctrine” and President Obama’s commitment to deep cuts in the US nuclear arsenal.

This Outlook will offer analysis of the dynamic interaction between the structure and the context of relations between Washington and Moscow to help identify some of its key drivers and sketch out its likely directions.

Russia’s Geostrategic Triad

Much in the conduct and aims of Russian foreign policy stems from a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse and ranging across virtually the entire political spectrum—from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists—this national accord on the key objectives of Russian foreign policy was a kind of line in the sand beyond which Russia could not retreat without losing its sense of self-worth, national pride, or even national identity.

This consensus has proven remarkably resilient, surviving postrevolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: Russia as a nuclear superpower; Russia as a great power; and Russia as the regional—political, military, and economic—superpower.[1] (Superpowership signifies unrivaled dominance, or in the case of Russia’s nuclear superpowership, parity with only one power, the United States. By contrast, “great power” means being one among several more or less equal geopolitical actors.) Implementing this agenda has constituted the core of Russian foreign policymaking over the past two decades.

The Putin Doctrine and the Recasting of the Agenda

After his election as president in 2000, Vladimir Putin effectively amended this national agenda with an overarching metagoal—the recovery of economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state in the 1991 antitotalitarian revolution. Although never spelled out formally, in retrospect this objective—and the set of policies that stemmed from it—has been prosecuted with enough determination, coherence, and consistency to fully earn it the title of the “Putin Doctrine.”

Domestically, the doctrine has guided the reclaiming of the “commanding heights” of the economy (first and foremost, the oil and natural gas industries) and the reestablishing of control over politics, the courts, and national television, where most Russian get their news. In foreign and security policy, the doctrine has amounted to a reinterpretation of Russia’s three geostrategic imperatives, making their implementation and maintenance considerably more assertive than many of those who originally articulated these goals had intended.

The Nuclear Superpower

The imperative of preserving its nuclear superpower status accounts for the enormous value Russia has assigned to maintaining strategic parity with the only other nuclear superpower, the United States. Hence, Russia’s eagerness to engage in strategic arms control negotiations.

Conversely, Moscow vehemently opposes anything it believes would weaken strategic parity with the United States. This explains the Kremlin’s steadfast resistance to US/NATO missile defense in Europe—the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). As a result, countless protestations by top US and NATO officials, including personal appeals by the last two American presidents to their Russian counterparts affirming that the system poses no threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, have been in vain. They could not have been otherwise: whatever other national security arguments Russia puts forward in support of its hostility to missile defense, the key reason for this implacable antagonism, as Vladimir Putin said in his speech at the Foreign Ministry this past July, is the fact that missile defense allegedly “upsets the strategic balance”[2]—that is, weakens Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower.

A secondary but symbolically important (and financially rewarding) pillar of Russia’s nuclear superpower status is the export of nuclear technologies. The state nuclear energy corporation, RosAtom, has been busily selling nuclear technology and currently has contracts for the sale of nuclear reactors to China, Turkey, India, Belarus, and Bangladesh. Iran has been a particularly attractive customer, with the construction of the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power plant completed against US wishes, not only underscoring Russia’s nuclear technological capacity but also demonstrating Moscow’s willingness to assert its policies in the face of Washington’s resistance.

A Great Power

This assertion, along with an active recovery of former Soviet geostrategic assets, is a central element of the great-power objective as the Putin Doctrine interprets it. Hence, Russia has pursued former Soviet (and mostly anti-US) clients in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Emblematic of this policy have been the maintenance of a supply-and-repair facility in the Syrian port of Tartus and Putin’s visit to Cuba in December 2000, the first by a Soviet or Russian leader since Leonid Brezhnev’s trip there in 1974. In the same vein, the Dmitry Medvedev–Hugo Chávez summit in Caracas in 2008 was the first in Russian or Soviet history. With loans extended by Russia, Venezuela became a major importer of Russian conventional arms and equipment.

The Putin Doctrine leaves little room for compromise with the United States when the latter appears to Moscow to be encroaching on—or belittling or challenging—Russia’s status as a great power. The Kremlin’s use of the UN Security Council to weaken or block US initiatives has risen steadily: in the 1990s, Russia cast two vetoes in the Security Council, but between 2000 and 2012, it wielded its veto eight times.

The cultivation and protection of former Soviet clients, who are also often current buyers of Russian technology and weapons, have increased Russia’s visibility in the Middle East, where the Soviet Union used to enjoy a great deal of influence—much, if not most of it, as a counterbalance to the United States. For example, Russia thrice has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions against Syria, in effect protecting Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.

The Regional Superpower: Integration and “Finlandization”

Russia’s pursuit of the third component of the national tripartite agenda—regional superpowership—has included, first and foremost, political, economic, military, and cultural reintegration of the post-Soviet nations under Russia’s undisputed leadership. In his programmatic speech at the Foreign Ministry on July 9, 2012, Putin reaffirmed this commitment, calling the “deepening of the integration” of the former Soviet territory the “heart of [Russia’s] foreign policy” and its “strategic perspective.”[3]

Never relenting in the face of less-than-enthusiastic cooperation by the newly independent states, the quest has resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Customs Union, with the latter expanding into the Common Economic Space and, in 2015, into the Eurasian Union, which has been advocated by Vladimir Putin personally, frequently, and forcefully.[4]

Under the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of regional superpowership has acquired a new element: an attempt at what might be called the “Finlandization” of the post-Soviet states. This Cold War term once described a limited-sovereignty arrangement in which domestic political and economic systems were left to the countries in question, while the Soviet Union had the final say on their foreign and defense policies. Thus, while Moscow was deeply disturbed by the anticorruption and antiauthoritarian “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space, the reaction has been especially sharp in cases where regime change in these nations has led to a foreign policy reorientation away from Moscow.

Thus, in the case of Georgia, which openly aspired to NATO membership, Russia went to war in an attempt to humiliate and dislodge the Mikheil Saakashvili regime. Similarly, the Kremlin sought to destabilize the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko government in Ukraine by the two “gas wars,” shutting off or threatening to shut off the delivery of natural gas in 2006 and 2009. Today, with a far more Russia-oriented government in Kiev, Moscow refuses to lower the prices of its natural gas exports to Ukraine, which pays more than many European importers, until Ukraine abandons plans for gradual integration into the European Union economic structures and instead becomes a member of the Customs Union and later of the Common Economic Space.[5]

Increased Defense Spending and Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Essential to the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of an unchallenged military superiority in the post-Soviet space explains the steady increase in the defense budget in absolute terms during Putin’s years in power. “The Kremlin has switched from imitating democracy to deterring European values,” noted Lilia Shevtsova, a leading expert on Russian foreign and domestic policies. “Anyone who thinks this shift will not affect Russian foreign policy is wrong. . . . Look at Kremlin defense spending and Moscow’s attempts to create a Eurasian Union from former Soviet states.”[6]

From an estimated $29 billion in 2000, Russia’s defense expenditures grew to $64 billion (in constant 2010 US dollars) in 2011.[7] (The increase in estimated ruble expenditures between 2000 and 2012 is almost tenfold.[8]) Even in a tougher economic environment following the 2008–09 downturn, the Kremlin has continued to expand defense outlays while economizing on other domestic programs, including education and health care. According to President Putin, between 2014 and 2020, defense spending will increase by $770 billion.[9]

The growth in defense funding is continuing despite warnings from some leading experts. Former first deputy prime minister and finance minister Alexei Kudrin, reportedly Putin’s confidant, has pointed to defense spending as one of the causes of budget deficits and inflation he sees as likely if oil and gas prices remain stagnant or trend down.[10]

Despite the increased funding, however, the Russian armed forces, apart from a few elite units, are still ill equipped and badly trained. The deficiency is likely among the reasons for Moscow’s unwillingness even to start talking about the reduction of its tactical nuclear arsenal, estimated to be 10 times larger than the one the US deploys in Europe.[11] Moscow’s potential adversary most likely to be targeted by its tactical arsenal is not in the West but in the Southeast—an economically and militarily resurgent China. Maintaining the tactical arsenal is the means to bolster the nation’s regional military superiority when demographic decline and largely failed modernization have resulted in Russia’s growing conventional inferiority against its historic rival. Tactical nuclear weapons provide an option short of a strategic nuclear strike in an escalating conventional conflict.

The “Besieged Fortress” Legitimation and US-Russian Relations

With its key objective to recover state ownership of—or, at least, control over—politics and the economy, the Putin Doctrine has inevitably led to authoritarianism. Just as inexorably, the Russian authoritarian restoration has resulted in a strategy that is novel for post-Soviet Russia. It can be called a “besieged fortress” legitimation.

A typical revolutionary regime—weak, chaotic, unable to collect taxes and thus pay salaries and pensions—the Russian state in the 1990s nevertheless was confident enough in its highly imperfect but real proto-democratic legitimacy not to need to exaggerate (or outright manufacture) external danger to bolster its authority and popular support. By contrast, almost from the beginning the Putin regime has explored and experimented with the foreign threat theme. This perennial legitimizing device of all authoritarian regimes—external danger and the ruling elite as the only protection from it—has become a staple of the Kremlin’s discourse as well.

The strategy was escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy in North Ossetia in September 2004, when hostage taking and a badly bungled rescue at a school left more than 300 people dead, over half of them children. In a televised address to the nation on September 6 of that year, Vladimir Putin hinted at unspecified and dark foreign interests for whom the terrorists were but a tool. “Some want tear off a juicy piece of our flesh, and others help them,” Putin averred. “[They] help them assuming that as one of the greatest nuclear powers Russia is still a threat to them. And this threat must be eliminated. And terrorism, of course, is just a means to these ends.”[12]

The same speech also contained a slightly modified version of Stalin’s famous dictum, “We have shown weakness. And the weak are defeated.” (In a February 1931 speech in which he justified his murderous “industrialization,” Stalin said, “The backward are beaten. You fall behind, you are weak means you can be beaten and enslaved.”[13])

A few weeks later the seemingly permanent deputy chief of the presidential administration and reputedly the regime’s main ideologist and “political technologist,” Vladislav Surkov, fleshed out Puttin’s theme of foreign meddling in an interview to a leading daily. Anonymous foreign malfeasants, hungry for the country’s natural resources, were plotting to “destroy Russia and fill its enormous space with many weak quasi-states.”[14] Surkov added that in the “de-facto besieged country,” the outside plotters were helped by “the fifth column” of traitors, the “left and right radicals,” who have “common foreign sponsors,” and that these traitors are united by “the hatred of what they claim to be Putin’s Russia, but, in fact, [is the hatred] of Russia herself.”[15]

As expected, the besieged fortress theme acquires the greatest visibility and intensity when the regime’s need for bolstering legitimacy appears to be the greatest: in the run-up to Duma and presidential elections; in the aftermath of large-scale terrorist acts; and, since last winter, following mass protests. The first systematic deployment of the external subversion theme occurred in 2007, the year of the Duma election, in which the Kremlin sought to ensure a two-thirds super-majority for the United Russia “party of power” and thus a free hand in changing Russia’s constitution.

The campaign began with Putin’s speech in February at the Munich Security Conference, in which he accused the United States of seeking to remain “one single master” of the world that “overstepped its borders in all spheres—economic, political and humanitarian, and has imposed itself on other states.”[16] Ten months later, a few days before the election, at a nighttime rally in Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow’s largest, Putin called out prodemocracy opposition “jackals” searching for “crumbs” at foreign embassies.[17] In between, at a Victory Day parade on May 9, 2007, Putin likened the perpetrators of “new threats” to Russia to the Third Reich because of the “same contempt for human life and the same pretensions of exclusivity and [the desire to impose] diktat on the world.[18] On the Day of Reconciliation (a major national holiday Putin had invented) on November 4, he spoke of “those who would themselves like to rule all humanity” and who “insist on the necessity of splitting [Russia] because it had “too many natural resources.”[19]

The Guiding Themes of US Policy toward Russia

Democracies are not good at formal policy doctrines. An untidy and boisterous presidential republic, the United States further exacerbates this institutional deficiency, as every new administration appears to take pride in formulating its foreign policy almost from scratch.

Still, if in the layers of declarations and policymaking records one is to search for recurrent themes that, in different degrees of emphasis and priority, are most relevant to US-Russian relations, these are likely to include at least five durable combinations of values, aspirations, and moral imperatives; geostrategic needs; and political influences. The first of these strands is what might be called the democratic messianism of Woodrow Wilson’s “making the world safe for democracy,”[20] and John F. Kennedy’s promise to “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend and promote liberty.[21]

In his second Inaugural Address, Obama, too, paid tribute to this tradition by declaring, “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”[22] Writing in Foreign Affairs over a quarter century ago, George Kennan listed (if only to critique) this theme’s key elements as “moral criteria for judgment” and “moral duty” in the advancement of “democracy,” “majority rule,” and “human rights.”[23]

Another key formative influence on US policy toward Russia is nuclear nonproliferation and strategic arms control, with a persistent wariness of nuclear weapons as such on the part of a significant part of the American foreign policy establishment and a corresponding urge toward sharp reduction and even elimination of nuclear arsenals. Defense against nuclear strike (“strategic defense”) has been a powerful policy motivator since the early 1980s. The trauma of 9/11, which has resulted in the worldwide effort to defeat or thwart Islamic terrorism, and Russia’s geographic proximity to some of the key theaters of this war (and its own engagement in it) have made antiterrorism cooperation another permanent element in US-Russian relations. Finally, public opinion, mass media, and Congress are key and permanent presences as well: while ususally granting the executive branch free hand in fashioning foreign policy most of the time, they do intervene occasionally and forcefully.

At the outset of Barack Obama’s first term, the administration singled out three elements of this strategic framework as priorities: nuclear arms reduction, the war with militant Islam in Afghanistan, and the thwarting of Iran’s production of weapons-grade uranium through UN sanctions. Apparently accepted by Moscow, these goals came to constitute the operational essence of the US-Russian strategic engagement known as the “reset.”

Tensions in the Structural Frameworks

Yet for both of the reset partners, this agenda was fraught with tension between the elements of their respective structural frameworks. For the United States, the need to secure Russia’s cooperation produced a muted public criticism of—not to mention policy response to—restrictions on human and political rights as well as Russia’s behavior in the post-Soviet space. Whether intended or not, another consequence of the emphasis on strategic arms reductions was the de facto linkage between it and slowing down the deployment of European missile defense or significantly modifying its configuration to assuage Moscow’s concerns.

For Moscow, the trade-offs between elements of the strategic triad were just as, if not more, complicated. The only unambiguous advancement of the national agenda was the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which reduced the number of America’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to Russia’s level. The Iranian nuclear standoff has forced the Kremlin to choose between the great-power imperative, which under the Putin Doctrine presupposed an almost automatic opposition to the policies of the United States, and regional superpowership, to which a nuclear Iran posed a serious threat. The doctrine was also suspended by President Medvedev because of the NATO intervention in Libya, when, in early 2011, Russia abstained from a UN Security Council vote to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, allowing the resolution to pass.

Russia’s Afghanistan Dilemma

A similar dilemma confronted Moscow in Afghanistan. Russia’s preferred outcome there appeared to be a prolonged and bloody conflict without a decisive victory for either side. An outright victory for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, even more so, the emergence of a stable, proto-democratic and Western-oriented Afghanistan would significantly challenge Russia’s regional superpowership. Modernization and democratization could spread to Central Asia, bringing about proto-democratic and anticorruption “color” revolutions or movements akin to the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and a possible reorientation of Central Asian states away from Russia.

Hence, after the initial consent to temporary US military installations in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2001–02, Moscow has opposed more permanent NATO bases in Central Asia. Russia has pressured and bribed Central Asian states, spending over $1 billion last year alone to bolster its military presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan by extending credits for the purchase of ­Russian-made weapons as well as a rebate for the customs duties on Russian oil and gas.[24]

Yet a Taliban triumph posed an even greater and more immediate threat to Russia’s regional hegemony. For a Kremlin unable for over a decade to defeat fundamentalist militancy in the North Caucasus, with a population only a fraction of Central Asia’s, the fall of the secular and largely pro-Russian regimes in Central Asia to Taliban-led or Taliban-inspired insurgencies could have turned into a geopolitical nightmare of battle-hardened Islamic militants very close to Russia’s borders. Moscow’s vociferous objections to the ISAF’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have included Putin’s publicly expressed preference for the continuing presence of the allied troops there.[25]

The Gear Teeth Meshed

In the end, however, the benefits from cooperating for each country’s geostrategic agenda proved compelling enough to overcome ambiguities and sacrifices along the way. The gear teeth meshed.

In March 2009, the reset was launched. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was established to ship personnel, materiel, and eventually lethal supplies through Russia to and from Afghanistan to supplement an increasingly dangerous route through Pakistan. Six months later, the US canceled the deployment of 10 ground-based midcourse missile interceptors and an X-Band radar in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The two nations signed the New START treaty in 2010. Moscow supported another round of UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran in June 2010 and canceled the delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense missile batteries to Iran. Following intense lobbying by the United States, including the successful mediation of the Russo-Georgian traade and customs dispute, after 18 years of negotiations, Russia became a member of the World Trade Organization.

From Incentives to Constraints: A Changing Context

Yet by the end of 2011, in their bilateral relations, both countries appeared to be reaching the boundaries of accommodation and compromise they could not overstep without compromising the structural elements of their strategic agendas. A changing geopolitical context has resulted in a growing disconnect between the two countries’ objectives and guiding values across some key policy issues.

A Nuclear Arms Stalemate. Despite US efforts and assurances at the highest levels, missile defense in Europe appears to have hardened into an insurmountable obstacle to Russia’s cooperation on another arms control agreement. In 2010, President Medvedev has threatened to retaliate with the deployment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles in Russia’s westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad and the withdrawal from New START if the United States proceeds with missile defense deployment. A few months after Medvedev’s announcement, Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov warned of “preemptively striking missile defense installations” in the latter phases of EPAA’s deployment.[26]

In October 2012, Russia announced its withdrawal from the 20-year-old “Nunn-Lugar” Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, under which the United States has spent over $7 billion to help deactivate more than 7,500 Russian strategic warheads. This year began with Russia’s envoy to NATO stating that no progress was possible “without drastic changes on the [missile defense] issue.”[27]

Russia’s Diminishing Geostrategic Relevance. From Washington’s vantage point, the new context is marked also by significant diminution of Russia’s relevance for some key US national interests. In Afghanistan, the rapid drawdown of US troops obviated much (if not most) of the need for the NDN after 2014. Regarding Iran, with great-power considerations apparently having prevailed over the perceived threat to the regional superpowership, after 2010 Russia unambiguously signaled the end of its support for additional multilateral sanctions in the UN Security Council—even sanctions of the watered-down variety it had previously voted for. Moscow has gone so far as to condemn US and European sanctions aimed at Iranian oil exports.

Syria was an even starker demonstration of the diversion in guiding values and objectives that rendered Russia’s interests incompatible with those of the United States. Russia has thrice vetoed US-supported Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions against the al-Assad regime. The last of the vetoes was cast in July 2012, after Obama’s appeal to Vladimir Putin in an hourlong telephone conversation.[28]

A Lower Tolerance for Russia’s Integrationist Efforts in the Post-Soviet Space. Toward the end of 2012, the United States began to signal its discomfort with this aspect of Russia’s regional superpowership under the Putin Doctrine. Apparently referring to the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union, and the Common Economic Space, all of which Putin again had advocated the day before at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Russia’s initiatives a “move to re-Sovietize the region.”[29] Clinton added, “Let’s make no mistake about it. We know what [Russia’s] goal is and we are trying to figure out the ways to slow it down or prevent it.”[30]

Increasing Relevance of Russia’s Domestic Policies. The emergence of the anti-Putin, pro-democracy and civil rights movement, led by the Russian middle class, and the regime’s response to it have further clouded bilateral relations. The momentous change in Russian politics has pitted against each other two central structural elements in the countries’ policymaking: US support for democratic self-rule and the Putin Doctrine’s recovery and maintenance of the state’s firm control of national politics.

Following Vladimir Putin’s reelection in March of last year, the regime has undertaken a concerted and consistent effort to intimidate, marginalize, and stigmatize not just the political opposition but also citizens participating in peaceful protests and members of nonpolitical independent civil movements and groups. Rubber-stamped in a quick succession by the Duma in the spring and summer of last year, new laws have further restricted public demonstrations by meting out huge fines, freedom of expression in print and online, and the self-organization of civil society by requiring nonprofit organizations receiving foreign donations to register as foreign agents.

Perhaps signaling the beginning of the regime’s transformation from a softer authoritarianism to a more traditional variety, police have raided the apartments of some opposition leaders. The two most popular, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, have been indicted on multiple charges of embezzlement (Navalny) and plotting treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government by instigating “mass disorder” (Udaltsov). Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. In another first in post-Soviet Russia, last October one of Udaltsov’s close associates was kidnapped in Kiev by Russian secret services, brought to Moscow, and tortured into confession in support of the charges against Udaltsov.31 Having tested the water, in the absence of a meaningful protest from the West, the Kremlin placed Udaltsov under house arrest in the second week of February.

The Sergei Magnitsky Act. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, adopted by Congress this past December, signals the increased bearing of Russia’s domestic behavior on bilateral relations. The law bans Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses and corruption from entering the United States and freezes their US assets. Like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974, which linked normal trade relations with the Soviet Union to the freedom of emigration (and which was repealed at the time of the Magnitsky adoption), the human rights legislation was passed by large bipartisan margins in both houses of Congress against White House objections.

Again, like Jackson-Vanik, Congress’s rare intrusion into the conduct of US-Russian relations was intended not only as punishment for the Kremlin but also as a correction of what the majority in Congress perceived as a morally unbalanced policy by a White House unwilling to respond to the denial and abuse of human, political and civil rights.

Two months after the passage of the Magnitsky legislation, the US government adopted its first policy response to the worsening political and civil rights situation in Russia by withdrawing from the working group on civil society within the Obama-Medvedev Commission (officially, the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission). Established after the July 2009 Moscow summit, the commission was to advance mutual understanding and cooperation on issues such as antiterrorism, educational and cultural exchanges, and the fight against corruption. It remains to be seen whether the US withdrawal from the working group is an exception or signals a policy change.

The Besieged Fortress Legitimation and Anti-Americanism. The propaganda campaign alleging subversion from abroad was broadly and intensely deployed in the run-up to the late-2011 Duma election, intensifying after the mass antiregime demonstrations in December 2011 and continuing during Putin’s presidential election campaign in the winter and early spring of 2012. “This is an attempt to consolidate the [Russian] society on the basis of a foreign threat—which, for the first time in the thousand years [of Russia’s history] does not exist,” noted Sergei Karaganov, honorary chairman of the presidium of the influential Council on Foreign and Defense policy in Moscow.[32]

After Putin accused Secretary of State Clinton of having given a “signal” to the opposition’s demonstrations,[33] the most-watched NTV national television channel developed the theme in a series of “documentaries.” One of them, titled Anatomy of the Protest, purported to depict the US support for the protest movement, complete with US diplomats distributing free cookies to the protesters.[34] Another portrayed the newly appointed US ambassador, Michael McFaul, as an agent dispatched by the US government to foment a “color revolution.”[35] (McFaul was also harassed by the Kremlin “journalists” in his public appearances.[36])

The humanitarian and economic development arm of the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, was expelled from Russia after two decades and nearly $3 billion in US taxpayer money spent on promoting civil society, judicial reform, and political and human rights, as well as providing medical services to the disadvantaged or the stigmatized, such as AIDS patients and drug addicts.

As part of Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Act, Russians with US citizenship have been prohibited from leading, or even participating in, civil rights groups (officially known as “noncommercial organizations”) involved “in political activity.” Among those banned is 81-year-old Ludmila Alexeeva, a former Soviet dissident and the head of Russia’s oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group. The same law empowers the Ministry of Justice to “suspend” the activity of such organizations if they received contributions from US citizens.[37]

The central component of the besieged fortress legitimizing campaign, anti-Americanism could not help but contribute to the further deterioration of bilateral relations. “Moscow is entering a period when its domestic policies will have a greater impact on foreign policy than before,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov, one of Russia’s preeminent independent foreign policy experts. “The anti-liberal spirit of domestic policy will almost inevitably dictate the necessity of counterpoising of Russia to the USA as the symbol and foundation of the world liberal system.”[38]

Option One: Reset 2.0

The unmeshing of the US and Russian core foreign policy objectives leaves the Obama White House only two basic choices. In theory, they are not mutually exclusive, but in practice, they are unlikely to be combined or even proceed on parallel tracks. One option is reengineering the reset, which the White House appears to be trying at the moment. According to Kremlin sources, Obama has accepted Putin’s invitation for a summit in Russia, conveyed in the Russian president’s congratulatory call to Obama after his reelection on November 13.[39] (A month later, Putin’s top adviser on the United States, Yuri Ushakov, was quoted in the Russian media as ascertaining that Obama was likely to visit Russia in the first half of 2013.[40]) According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, new US Secretary of State John Kerry has accepted Lavrov’s invitation to visit Moscow on an unspecified date.

“We will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals,” President Obama said in his January 2013 State of the Union address. Russian media also reported in early February that National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon was going to visit Moscow “soon” to restart the reset and to “offer starting negotiations regarding a new round of the reduction of the nuclear arsenals.”[41] In mid-February, acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who was the chief negotiator of the New START, visited Moscow to discuss the same subject.[42]

Indeed, with Russia’s geostrategic relevance significantly reduced, another arms reduction agreement would be the only area of reengagement with Russia consonant with the structural framework of US foreign policy. Although consistent with President Obama’s deep ideological commitment to what he called “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,”[43] this objective might prove too weak a reed to bear the entire weight of even a truncated “reset.”

The pursuit of an arms control deal in the context of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies that are hostile to US values or interests, as well as the deployment of anti-American propaganda, is bound to create tensions in key areas of US-Russia policy such as missile defense and promotion of democracy, as well as a growing opposition in the media, public opinion, and eventually Congress. Indeed, if Moscow persists in its current policies, it is not hard to imagine, for instance, Congress rejecting another arms control agreement with Russia, in the unlikely event that the administration manages to have Russia sign off on it. The probability of another treaty’s failure to pass the Senate is increased by the fact that many, if not most, senators reportedly voted for the treaty in exchange for the White House’s promise to modernize the US strategic nuclear arsenal—a commitment that critics charge has not been fulfilled.[44]

An additional and likely increasingly damaging critique may come from the almost certain initial frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton. She has already begun to distance herself from the reset not only with her blunt critique of Russian policies in the post-Soviet space that I have already mentioned, but also with an acknowledgment of the broader, “serious and continuing differences with Russia—on Syria, missile defense, NATO enlargement, human rights and other issues.”[45] While advocating continuing engagement with Russia, Clinton has emphasized the necessity of “very clear eyes about where we draw our lines,”[46] and she is likely to advocate drawing them thickly and with increasing frequency.

Option Two: A Strategic Pause

Drawing (and abiding by) these lines, as suggested by Clinton, may become a central element in the alternative course of US-Russian relations. Let’s call it a strategic pause.

Of course, this is a less-than-desirable state of relations between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. The silver lining, though, is that in relations between countries, as between individuals, such pauses could provide a much-needed opportunity to define (or redefine) priorities in the relationship and the price each is prepared to pay for achieving those goals. What do we need from Russia, and what are we prepared to offer in return? This, among other topics, would be a most worthwhile debate to have both within the Obama administration and among experts and the interested public at large.

A pause in engagement ought not to mean inaction or silence. As the returning administration ponders what it should do with respect to the most pressing and most divisive issues in US-Russian relations—be it missile defense in Europe or the US opposition to growing authoritarianism and repression or the Finlandization of the post-Soviet space—the lines of communication with Moscow should be kept open for a frank dialogue. Overlapping with and reinforcing this objective will be the protection of existing “equity” in the relationship—that is, the areas where interests still coincide: cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and antiterrorism; support of the residual US military presence in Afghanistan; and coordination of policy to thwart the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia.

Eyes on the Prize

Least of all should such a pause be seen as an excuse for disengaging from Russia’s burgeoning civil society, which appears to be increasingly able and willing to take on the executive at every level.[47] On the contrary, from the presidential bully pulpit down to the bowels of the State Department the message should be loud and clear: a free, democratic, stable, and prosperous Russian state, at long last at peace with its own people and the world, would be an immense geostrategic boon to the United States, and Americans would be deeply gratified to welcome such a Russia as a friend and ally. The emergence of such a state ought to be the overarching priority to which other objectives in US-Russian relations are attuned and adjusted.

Of course, the decisive role in this epochal enterprise is that of the Russian people themselves, and success seems closer today than at any time since the Glorious Revolution of 1991. But US policy—and, especially, presidential rhetoric—must aim to help this goal along, not impede it.

The challenge for the United States is to find the middle ground between the hubris of thinking that we can shape and guide Russia’s domestic evolution and the resignation of not being able to do anything from the outside. Finding such middle ground and treading it carefully will not be easy; tactics will have to be adjusted often and with nuance. Yet for both the current administration and its successors, the strategic goal should remain the same: to assist Russia’s progress toward genuine democracy. The United States should never take its eyes off this prize.

A shorter version of this article was published on in March 2013. I am grateful to research assistants Daniel Vajdic and Katie Earle, senior editor Christy Sadler, and designer Claude Aubert for assistance in editing and producing this Outlook.

1. The earliest formulation of this national consensus was “The Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” (Konstseptsia vneshney politiki Rossiyskoj Federatsii), a 58-page memorandum sent January 25, 1993, by Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to Evgenii Ambartsumov, the chairman of the Committee on International Relations of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. Three months later, in the last week of April, after extensive review by the National Security Council, President Boris Yeltsin signed into law a leaner version of the Concept: “The Key Tenets of the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” (Osnovnye polozheniya kontseptsii vneshney politiki Rossiyskoy Federatsii). For a detailed description of the emergence, content, and remarkable endurance of the national accord on strategic priorities of Russian foreign policy, see Leon Aron, “The Emergent Priorities of Russian Foreign Policy,” in The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, ed. Leon Aron and Kenneth M. Jensen (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 1994), and Leon Aron, “The Foreign Policy Doctrine of Post-Communist Russia and Its Domestic Context,” in The New Russian Foreign Policy, ed. Michael Mandelbaum (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).
2. Vladimir Putin, speech, Meeting of Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of Russia, Moscow, July 9, 2012,
3. Ibid.
4. Alexandr Gabuev, “Gaz i imidzh” [Gas and Image], Kommersant Vlast, January 14, 2013. For Putin’s advocacy see, Vladimir Putin, “Noviy intyegratsionniy proyekt dlya Yevrazii—boodooshshyeye, kotoroye rozhdayetsya syegodnya” [New Integration Project for Eurasia—A Future, Which Is Born Today], Izvestia, October 3, 2011, A year later, Putin elaborated on this theme at the Valdai Club meeting. See Vladimir Putin, “Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Transcript of the Beginning of the Meeting,” (press conference, Moscow, October 26, 2012), For more on Putin’s conception of the Eurasian Union, see also Vladimir Putin, “Joint News Conference Following Russia-EU Summit,” (speech, St Petersburg, June 4, 2012),
5. Gabuev, “Gaz i imidzh.”
6. Lilia Shevtsova, “A New Way to Contain Russia.” Financial Times, February 7, 2013.
7. See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 2012, See also “Chapter 5: Russia,” The Military Balance 112, no. 1 (2012): 183–204,
8. Estimated Russian national defense expenditures grew from R191b in 2000 to R1,853b in 2012. See “Chapter 5: Russia.”
9. Walter Hickey, “A Full Rundown of Russia’s Immense Military Acquisitions,” Business Insider, July 23, 2012,
10. “Kudrin Slates Russia’s Risky Economic Policy,” RIA Novosti, October 18, 2011,
11. Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “US Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe Fact Sheet,” January 2011,
12. Vladimir Putin, speech, Moscow, Russia, September 4, 2004,
13. Josef Stalin, “O zadachah hozyaystvyennikov: Ryech’ na Pyervoy Vsyesoyooznoy konfyeryentsii rabotnikov sotsialistichyeskoy promishlyennosti” [About Goals for Industrial Managers], speech, First All-Union Conference of Socialist Industrial Workers, February 4, 1931,
14. Elena Ovcharenko and Larisa Kaftan, Interview with Vladislav Surkov, Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 28, 2004,
15. Ibid.
16. Rob Watson, “Putin’s Speech: Back to Cold War?” BBC News, February 10, 2007,
17. Vladimir Putin, “Vystyplenie na forume storonnikov Prezidenta Rossii” [Speech at the Forum of the Supporters of the President of Russia], (speech, Moscow, November 21, 2007), (accessed January 27, 2013).
18. Vladimir Putin, “Vystuplenie na voennom parade v chest’ 62 godovshchiny Pobedy v Velikoy Otechestvennoy voyne” [Speech, Military Parade to Commemorate the 62nd Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, Moscow, May 9, 2007],
19. Vladimir Putin, “Beseda s kursantami voennykh uchilishch i predstavitelyami molodyozhnykh organizatsiy” [Conversation with Cadets and Representatives of Youth Organizations], (speech, Moscow, November 4, 2007),
20. Woodrow Wilson, “Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War Against Germany,” April 2, 1917,
21. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1961,
22. Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address,” January 21, 2013,
23. George Kennan, “Morality and Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 64, no.2 (Winter 1985): 208.
24. Gabuev, “Gaz i imidzh.”
25. “Putin Reiterates Support for NATO Afghan Operation,” RIA Novosti, January 8, 2012,; “NATO Troops Pullout from Afghanistan to Create More Problems—Putin,” The Voice of Russia, December 20, 2012,
26. Adrian Croft and Steve Gutterman, “Russia Says It Could Pre-emptively Strike Missile Shield,” Reuters, May 3, 2012,
27. “US Seeks ABM Cooperation with Russia–Nuland,” The Voice of Russia, January 4, 2012,
28. Andrew Quinn and Matt Spetalnick, “Obama, Putin Talk as US says Assad Losing Grip on Syria,” Reuters, July 18, 2012,
29. Charles Clover, “Clinton Vows to Thwart New Soviet Union,” Financial Times, December 6, 2012.
30. Ibid.
31. Sergei L. Loiko, “Russia Activist Was Tortured in Custody, Rights Group Says,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2012,; and “Ukraine Blames ‘Foreign” Security Forces in Russian Activist’s Disappearance,” Voice of America, October 25, 2012,
32. As quoted in Alexandr Artemiev, Ekaterina Vinokurova and Olga Kuzmenkova, “SShA svorachivayut sotrudnichestvo s Rossiyey v oblasti prav cheloveka—‘perezagruzka’ provalilas” [USA Is Cutting Back on the Cooperative in the Area of Human Rights—the ‘Reset’ Has Failed],, January 25, 2013,
33. Laura Smith-Spark and Maxim Tkachenko, “Putin Accuses US of Encouraging Russia Election Protests,” CNN, December 8, 2011,
34. Ellen Barry and Michael Schwirtz, “Russian TV Broadcast Besmirching Protesters Draws a Furious Reaction,” New York Times, March 24, 2012,
35. Ellen Barry, “US Envoy to Russia Accuses TV Station of Spying on Him,” New York Times, March 30, 2012,
36. Leon Aron, “Don’t Go There,” Foreign Policy, November 20, 2012,
37. Natalia Bashlykova, Natalia Gorodetskaya, and Maxim Ivanov, “Dvizhenie nepriznaniya” [The Movement of Non-recognition], Kommersant, January 9, 2012.
38. Fyodor Lukyanov, “Prokhladnaya nevoyna” [A Cool Nonwar], Ogonyok-Kommersant, February 11, 2013,
39. Vladimir Putin, “Tyelyefonniy razgovor s Pryezidyentom S.Sh.A Barakom Obamoy” [Telephone Conversation with US President Barack Obama],, November 13, 2012, See also Ellen Barry, “Frosty Relations with Russia Begin to Thaw after Obama’s Re-election,” New York Times, November 13, 2012,
40. “Kryeml’ rasschitivayet, chto Obama posyetit RF v pyervoy polovinye 2013 goda” [The Kremlin Expects That Obama Will Visit Russia in the First Half of 2013], Voice of Russia, December 13, 2012,
41. Pavel Felgengauer, “Washington Attempts to Put Relations with Moscow ‘Back on Track,’ Eurasia Daily Monitor (February 2013); Kirill Belyaninov, “SSha ne khvataet tseley dlya yadernogo oruzhiya” [The USA Does Not Have Enough Targets for Its Nuclear Weapons], Kommersant, February 11, 2013,; and Elena Chernenko, “Rossiyu ozhidaet novaya missiya” [Russia Expects a New Mission], Kommersant, January 11, 2013, See also Julian Pecquet, “Obama to Try Again for Reset with Russia.” The Hill, January 14, 2013.
42. Elena Chernenko and Ivan Safronov, “Razoruzhenie zamedlennogo deystviya” [A Delayed-Action Disarmament], Kommersant, February 15, 2013.
43. “Remarks by Barack Obama,” Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009,
44. See, for example, Sen. Jon Kyl, Sen. Bob Corker, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, “Restore Commitment to Nuclear Modernization,” Politico, April 22, 2012,; Michaela Bendikova and Baker Spring, “Bait and Switch on Nuclear Modernization Must Stop,” Heritage Foundation, January 4, 2013,; and Mark Schneider, “Nuclear Modernization: The Obama Administration’s Fading Commitment,” Weekly Standard 17, no. 4 (Oct 10, 2011), Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) cited Chuck Hagel’s opposition to the modernization as a key reason he intended to vote against Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of state (Jim Inhofe, “The Wrong Man for the Pentagon,” Washington Post, January 27, 2013).
45. Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks at the Foreign Policy Group’s ‘Transformational Trends 2013’ Forum” (The Newseum, Washington, DC, November 29, 2012),
46. Ibid.
47. Leon Aron, “Russia’s Protesters: The People, Ideals, and Prospects,” AEI Russian Outlook (Summer 2012),; and Leon Aron, A Quest for Democratic Citizenship (Washington, DC: AEI, September 2012),

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