October 1 was probably the official end of Obama’s Russian Reset Policy. The culmination of the failure was September 18, when Moscow officially thanked Washington for $2.7 billion US dollars of aid spent in Russia for over 20 years and requested USAID to pack and leave by October 1. Causes of this decision not mentioned in the official letter, but publicly voiced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was USAID’s involvement in Russia’s internal affairs and attempt to influence the election processes through funding non-governmental election monitoring organizations. Putin went as far as accusing personally Secretary Clinton in “encouraging “mercenary” Kremlin foes” by “setting the tone for some opposition activists.” Kremlin is primarily annoyed by the election monitoring NGO “Golos,” which is by and large the only significant independent non-governmental organization left in Moscow, surviving and functioning through American and European funding only. Earlier this year, Russian Duma adopted a law that requires international non-governmental organizations to register as foreign agents. Russian law-makers have been complaining about the sources of funding of these organizations for years already.
The Reset Policy was viewed quite skeptically from the very beginning. Skeptics and critics were everywhere - in Washington, Moscow, and Europe, especially in the Central and Eastern Europe. As it progressed (or regressed) some even joked that the policy was “moving from “reset” to “regret.”” The Reset, formally launched in March 2009, was defined by the State Department as the strategy to “cooperate in areas where we can cooperate with Russia, in areas that serve American national interests… and communicate clearly and honestly on the topics where the two governments don’t agree.” The areas important for American national interests were many, with the cooperation on Iran, in Afghanistan, and now Syria, signing of the new START treaty and deployment of missile defense system in Central Europe in the top of the list. Unfortunately, the Reset did not yield major results in any of these areas. Yes, the START was signed, but many argue on how fair and beneficial it was for the US; Washington held off the missile defense project in Poland, but this compromise was not followed by the reciprocal actions from Moscow and what’s worse, Warsaw launched discussions with France and Germany on developing its own defense system independently from Washington. There was no progress in cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan either.
If we look at the bigger picture, Reset policy was an attempt to engage Russia (a defiant actor) in constructive cooperation and negotiations through institutions (special NATO-Russia Council), binding it to various international regimes and treaties (acceptance to WTO, START), and showing that such cooperation can be fruitful and Russia can actually get what it wants without creating energy crises or using hard power (compromise on Polish missile defense). But it did not work. Was reset unsuccessful only because White House was not ready to forget about permanent human rights violations and civil society and media repressions, or because it kept repeating that US believes Georgian break-away territories are occupied by Russia? Even though Moscow has always been too sensitive about its special “Sovereign Democracy” and is not welcoming any comment or “humanitarian intervention” in the areas which Kremlin considers as its internal affairs, Washington’s moderate statements regarding Georgia, or financial support of the civil society organizations in Russia are still peripheral issues, especially now that NATO expansion has stopped for a long time, if not forever. Kremlin has simply made its choice and betted on becoming an alternative pole of power through establishing unclear and messy relationship with other defiant actors such as China, Venezuela, Iran or Syria.
Now, what does that mean for the US and the rest of the world? Moscow’s extravagant actions are clearly raising security concerns among its immediate neighbors and in Europe. Countries with centuries of experience of dealing with Russia, are facing old dilemma of bandwagoning (choice between US and Russia) or building regional alliances to balance it. As we saw, as soon as Washington stepped back on missile defense system, Warsaw started to question US’s reliability and immediately started to look for alternatives in Paris and Berlin (US and Poland have re-launched negotiations in the summer 2012 and now plan to develop the system by 2018). Countries which depend on Russian energy resources are facing even harder choices.
Of course, White House is not going to respond on Russia’s latest provocation in the pre-election period, but new administration will have to come up with an alternative to or simply a new reset strategy. Having Putin back to Kremlin for another 10 years most probably, not much of the change can be expected on Moscow’s side. But as we heard in Seoul this year, Obama promised “more flexibility” after the elections. What may this “flexibility” mean is a good question for us to discuss.