The Real Reset: Moscow Refights the Cold War

P residents Obama and Medvedev have publicly insisted that “hitting the reset button” has improved more than just the atmospherics of U.S.-Russian relations. Russian officials in particular claim that this policy shows that Washington has begun to take Moscow’s interests seriously. But enthusiasts on both sides are hard-pressed to come up with evidence that the new approach has accomplished much, and some American foreign policy experts have begun to argue that “taking Moscow’s interests seriously” might well lead to rather different and less favorable outcomes than those imagined by the architects of the reset policy.

It is fashionable in today’s Washington to assert that the United States needs Russian cooperation to stop North Korean and particularly Iranian nuclear proliferation. Many adherents of this view argue that taking Russia “seriously” means accepting Russian demands for no missile defense in Eastern Europe and no NATO enlargement or further European integration of the former Soviet republics. In other words, the price of such cooperation means leaving Europe vulnerable to Russian military threats (like those leveled against Poland in 2008 in response to the potential deployment of a U.S. missile defense system there) and turning a blind eye to Russia’s energy blackmailing as well as its efforts to quash democracy and establish a heavy-handed sphere of influence in its near abroad. Such a bargain would be both a moral and a strategic disaster for the United States and Europe, not to mention former Soviet republics.

The centerpiece of the reset policy is the new arms control treaty known as “New START.” Under its measures, both sides will retain 1,550 warheads. Second, both sides can retain up to eight hundred strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDVs, i.e., vehicles capable of carrying a nuclear or designated strategic warhead), of which seven hundred can be deployed while the other hundred remain in reserve. (Russia only has five to six hundred SNDVs to retain in the first place, but the U.S. will have to cut down its own supply from the 1,100 suggested by the presidents’ June 2009 statement to the limit dictated by the treaty.) Third, the U.S. has apparently agreed to Russian demands that its conventional weapons mounted on strategic platforms be counted as strategic weapons except in the case of submarines carrying cruise missiles. Specifically, Moscow reported that “the Americans have agreed to regard the majority of their non-nuclear-configured delivery platforms as strategic. In exchange, we have decided not to count in the strategic category their four submarines converted to accommodate sea-launched cruise missiles.” The overall terms of this agreement could force a serious reconfiguration of the U.S. nuclear triad, perhaps even eliminating the airborne leg and thus substantially limiting the conventional global strike capability that Russia regards as America’s most potent military instrument—and whose elimination it has regarded as its primary objective in these talks.

Controversies exist as to whether or not we can adequately verify Russia’s new mobile, MIRVed, land-based ICBM, the RS-24, which can carry up to ten warheads and will serve as the backbone of Russia’s deterrent through 2030. We will not be able to verify them at the factory, as was previously the case, but only through the examination of test results. According to the treaty’s terms, Russia has blocked further U.S. monitoring at its missile factory in Votkinsk, which produces the land-based SS-27 Topol-M ICBM and the sea-based Bulava SS-26 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Moscow also opposed renewing START-1 provisions for exchanging missile test data (called telemetry), but ultimately relented to the point of allowing five such inspections each year.


A s this treaty comes up for consideration before the Senate, these concessions by the United States, in addition to questionable verification procedures, have already triggered an outcry from Republicans and conservative Democrats. Senator Jon Kyl has already vowed to kill the treaty for other reasons, believing that Russia has violated existing treaties by creating a new missile, the RS-24. Beyond that, a Senate group has formed to defend the four hundred and fifty land-based ICBMs as our most reliable deterrent, and believes that this leg of the nuclear triad will be broken by this treaty. Similarly, the naval and air legs of the triad have their diehard supporters in the iron triangle of military personnel, industry lobbyists, and congressional supporters. These facts on the ground suggest that the administration will have a hard climb to get the sixty-seven votes required to ratify the treaty.

Worse yet, Russia claims that the U.S. reshaped its missile defense posture in Europe to “create risks for Russia.” As a result, Moscow seeks to link offensive and defensive deployments in the treaty, thereby limiting U.S. missile defense capabilities. Given the strong Republican attachment to missile defenses and the reluctance with which they supported their recent reconfiguration, anything that looks like a further undermining of those systems in Europe or elsewhere will generate serious opposition in the Senate. Finally, the ratification debate will focus not merely on the specific language of the agreement but also on the strategy behind it, which seems to many experts to be based on wishful thinking within the administration.

Beyond these issues of force structure and verification, many have charged that there is a tacit understanding with Moscow on not building missile defenses, that the treaty is silent about tactical nuclear weapons (of which Moscow possesses several thousand), that the treaty does nothing to curb any of Russia’s current nuclear modernization projects (including low-yield nuclear weapons and nuclear fusion weapons), and that in fact Moscow, as it has itself stated publicly, could carry up to 2,100 warheads, not 1,550, and still be compliant with the treaty’s counting rules. Likewise, there are continuing fears that Russia could hold its legal right to withdraw from the treaty as a club with which to threaten the administration over the ongoing improvement of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, thus nullifying or slowing the improvement of those defenses. In this connection, Russian opposition to missile defense stems from opposition to any U.S. military presence in Central or Eastern Europe, and a determination to retain the capability to intimidate Europeans with threats of nuclear strikes. Indeed, on October 9 and 14, 2009, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, stated that the forthcoming defense doctrine will provide for preemptive and even preventive use of nuclear weapons in a first-strike mode even in a so-called local and purely conventional war. Although the doctrine appeared to shun that posture, Russia’s nuclear policy is now classified, so we cannot be certain of Moscow’s intentions.

The danger that the Senate will fail to ratify this prospective treaty, and thereby cause the collapse of the reset policy, shows the shallowness of what that policy has achieved to date. There is no sign of any genuine Russian quid pro quo in return for the reshaping of missile defense policy. Far from it: Moscow has continued to play a double game in Iran, criticizing Tehran but also dragging its feet on truly meaningful sanctions while boosting arms sales to the Iranians by twelve percent this year, according to Russia’s own federal agency for military cooperation. While Russia certainly opposes Iranian nuclearization (and supports the plan to bring Iranian spent nuclear fuel to Russia), it exported scientists and technicians to Iran throughout the 1990s and has provided major assistance for Iran’s conventional weapon, space, and missile programs. Indeed, some recent reports allege the existence of a long-term, high-level Russian program to smuggle weapons clandestinely into Iran using the Algerian and Syrian government, Kurdish terrorists, and members of Russian organized crime in Spain. It is no wonder, therefore, that there is a growing feeling in the foreign policy community that Moscow does not take the threat nearly as seriously as the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East do. Indeed, Russian leaders publicly say that this is an American, not necessarily a Russian, concern. In fact, even though Moscow ultimately voted for new sanctions and froze the sale of the S-300 missile to Iran, with Medvedev demanding an “explanation” from Iran about its nuclear program, Russia has also announced new energy sales to Iran that certainly violate the spirit of the U.N. vote, and its officials maintain that the contract for the S-300 remains in effect.


T hose who argue for taking Russia seriously acknowledge that its robust economic interests in Iran, especially energy interests, influence Moscow’s policies. But they are less likely to note that Russia also has fundamental strategic interests in promoting U.S.-Iranian hostility. Indeed, official Russian statements advocate strengthening Iran’s role as a legitimate actor in a Middle East security system even as Iranian leaders threaten to destroy Israel and promote state-sponsored terrorism. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went beyond this and said that the current Iranian government should even be invited to participate in any security system for the Black Sea region.

For more than a decade, Russian officials have openly stated that they want Iran to be a partner of Russia and not of the United States, a way of blocking the U.S. from consolidating its position as the leading foreign power in the Middle East—a position Moscow still desperately covets. Any Iranian rapprochement with the West, which would lead to large quantities of Iranian gas and oil being shipped to Europe, would also undermine Russia’s strategy of using energy as a weapon to subvert European security institutions and governments. In addition, such a reorientation to the West by Tehran would likely open up foreign investment and access through Iran to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, allowing Central Asian energy to bypass Russia as it flows to the entire world, depriving Moscow of the last card it has to play.

Finally, even though Medvedev has frequently said that Iran’s rejection of the latest Western offers could lead to sanctions, he cannot make this decision on his own because of the political strength of the pro-Iranian faction led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Indeed, it is Putin’s allies in the government who are fighting to retain the S-300 contract and make energy sales to Iran, while Putin himself still claims that there is no evidence of a military nuclear program in Iran, even though Moscow has known since at least 1993 (when it published an intelligence report on nuclear proliferation) that Iran has attempted to build a nuclear weapon. Given what the former Communist regime might have called “the objective conditions” among Russia’s policy elite, therefore, the presumption that the U.S. can expect any kind of serious cooperation from Moscow on Iran is unfounded and even mischievous. Thus on April 29, 2010, Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated that Russia has no evidence that Iran harbors designs for a military nuclear program and that Russian officials insist on “smart sanctions” that do not hurt the Iranian people. Indeed, to meet Russian and Chinese objections, the Obama administration preemptively exempted them from the sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council in June.


P ressing the reset button has hardly led to any progress to date on the outstanding issues of European and Eurasian security either. There are clearly elements in Moscow who want a second round with Georgia, for instance, to unseat its government and perhaps accomplish further “territorial revisions” there. In this regard, it is significant that the Duma recently enacted a law that allows Russia’s armed forces to be used in operations beyond Russia’s borders in order to:

• counter an attack against Russian armed forces or other troops deployed beyond Russia’s borders;
• counter or prevent an aggression against another country;
• protect Russian citizens abroad;
• combat piracy and ensure safe passage of shipping.

This law would not only provide a “legal” basis for the offensive projection of Russian military force beyond Russia’s borders—and thus justify any subsequent attack against Georgia in response to alleged attacks on “the Russian citizens” of the supposedly independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—but it would also provide a basis for the offensive use of Russian force against every state from the Baltic to Central Asia. Certainly the policy puts Ukraine at risk, given Moscow’s frequent complaints about the derogation of the Russian language and culture there, and the situation in Crimea. Moscow continues to use all the means at its disposal to manipulate Ukrainian politics and economics in order to subordinate Ukraine to this vision of Russian hegemony. None of this should surprise us. After all, in the wake of the Russo-Georgian war, Medvedev made it clear that Russia not only reserves the right to revise borders or intervene in other countries, but also demands a sphere of influence in Eurasia as a whole. A recent study of Russian policy in Latvia conducted by Gundar J. King and David E. McNabb got the larger picture right: “We see several, interrelated short-term [Russian] strategies focusing on exercising ever-increasing influence in the politics of the target states. What we do not see is a policy of military conquest but, rather, a gradual but unswerving drive to eventually regain dominance over the social, economic, and political affairs of what are to become entirely dependent client states.”

Moscow’s demands for a free hand in its so-called sphere of interest represent an open and ongoing campaign to erode its neighbors’ sovereignty as it tries to subvert them from the inside using energy, intelligence penetration, funds from Russian energy sales, and ties between the state and organized crime. Nor should we think that the war with Georgia represents an end to conflicts in the post-Soviet region. The same thing could happen not only in Ukraine, but in Kazakhstan as well. As one of Russia’s most insightful analysts of the Caucasus, Sergei Markedonov, observes, Russia is now using an internationalized negotiating format in Geneva to work for ratification of the new status quo it has created by force. Markedonov warns of an “objective process” taking place, one he defines as “the formation of nation-states after the destruction of imperial formations and the victory of the nationalist discourse.” He adds, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was not the end point in this process, it was a beginning. Such processes, by definition, are not completed quickly. A conflict of ‘imagined geographies,’ different mentalities, is in progress. And not only the conflict but also the actual formation of political and even ethnic identities is not yet finished.”

Lawrence Sheets, the Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group, similarly warns that the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus and Black Sea are thawing and could lead to further ethno-political conflicts there, if not elsewhere. And it is clear to everyone that Moscow yearns for “regime change” in Georgia.

Despite all of this, it is difficult to discern any serious post-reset policy on the part of the U.S. for the Caucasus or Eurasia other than winning the war in Afghanistan. Numerous articles have shown that the U.S. has until recently neglected Azerbaijan, a key partner and energy supplier in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan fears that Turkey’s negotiations with Armenia will be conducted without reference to its own claims on Armenia (stemming from the war over Nagorno-Karabakh), and that America has essentially left Azerbaijan out in the cold. Moscow is only too happy to help Baku vent at Ankara and Washington, bolstering its position by telling Baku that it will buy Azeri gas (and thus save Azerbaijan the trouble of having to ship it to Turkey, which demands cut-rate prices and clearly does not take Baku’s interests into account). As of this spring, Turkey and Russia are essentially maneuvering in the Caucasus absent any visible sign of a coherent U.S. strategy.

Making these concessions to Russia concerning Europe and Eurasia would also be disastrous for the following reasons, apart from Russia’s open contempt for the sovereignty of post-Soviet states. Russia’s call for new European security architecture is a transparent attempt to erode the foundations of the current status quo, in particular NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, while leaving it a free hand to do as it pleases in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Indeed, Moscow’s draft treaty of November 29, 2009, is so self-serving that in many ways it reads like it was cribbed from Molotov’s 1954 proposal to combine NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet there does not appear to be any U.S. strategy to counter this idea in a multilateral forum. As a result, Russian spokesmen are allowed to insist that any future European security system should guarantee every state’s integrity without anyone pointing out the absurdity of such an assertion in the wake of Moscow’s attack against Georgia.

Finally, the administration has signaled that it will not publicly pursue democratization, even on the basis of previously adopted accords like the Helsinki Final Act. This disengagement not only strengthens Russia’s contempt for democracy and provides an alibi for countless other authoritarians seeking to undermine U.S. policies, but also degrades American standing abroad and discomfits our allies while winning us no strategic benefits.


T his absence of discernible quid pro quo in return for U.S. concessions casts serious doubt on Obama’s new approach to Russia. The current administration has not shown why improved ties with the other side are important, what the positive gains may be, what the limits of this reset policy may be, and why it should command serious domestic support. Here, Washington’s silence on these important questions has opened the door to a likely Republican and conservative Democratic assault on the forthcoming treaty, which would jeopardize the continuation of the overall policy. Indeed, the same is true in Russia—and Medvedev’s lack of control over his own government should also cast serious doubt on the reset: Putin’s faction, after all, has already tried to organize military alliances with Latin American states like Venezuela and Ecuador, alliances hostile to the United States and designed to secure Russian air and naval bases in those counties (as well as in Bolivia) to support Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Clearly, pushing the reset button, from Russia’s point of view, means one thing: getting a free hand to pursue policies that are in many respects fundamentally driven by anti-Americanism and its own sense of Great Power entitlement. The fact is that Russia has long since decided that we are its prime adversary, and its model for relations with the U.S. is not far removed from the peaceful coexistence model of the Brezhnev era, another period in which détente only succeeded to a limited degree and foundered on missile placements in Europe and Soviet adventurism in the Middle East and the third world. The recent episode of the twelve Russian “sleeper” agents caught and deported by the United States illustrates the problem of the current Russian mind-set. The scope and scale of this operation (and who knows how many other such operatives are “out there”) underscore Moscow’s guiding assumption that the U.S. is its prime adversary, which in turn illustrates Russia’s addiction to Cold War tactics and thinking. Medvedev may call for “modernization alliances” with the U.S. and Europe, but his government’s actions indicate that it sees us as anything but a friend.

We should indeed take Moscow and its plans seriously. For the most part, unfortunately, those aims and interests are antithetical to the cause of stopping Iranian proliferation and preserving peace and security in Europe. A realistic understanding of Russian intentions, rather than the vacuously optimistic view shared by many commentators who should know better, ought to be the true basis for engaging Moscow diplomatically. Any reset in relations should come from a cold-blooded calculation of our interests, not sentimentality or illusion—and certainly not with a trusting (and unreciprocated) acceptance of Moscow’s self-serving definition of its bottom line or its “sphere of influence.” Getting real about Russia does not mean taking Moscow lightly or rejecting cooperation when it is desirable, but it does mean advancing our own goals as seriously as Russia is advancing its own.

Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. The opinions expressed are his own.

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