Marina Aristova
(Postgraduate Researcher, University of Indianapolis (Athens Campus)


Background and Reasons to Reset US-Russia Relations

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new foreign policy strategy regarding Russia: the relations of reset. President Obama’s initiative was preceded by years of serious disagreements and disputes over missile defense, NATO membership enlargement, post-Soviet space, and the war in Georgia. President Obama sought to engage the Russian government to pursue foreign policy goals of common interest—win-win outcomes—for the American and Russian people ( Though both countries overcame virtually everything that defined their Cold War confrontation, the United States and Russia were not able to develop sustainable cooperative bilateral relations (Allison et al. 2). In August 2008, the Russia-US relationship reached its highest level of post-Cold War tension. The military conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, in which the U.S. supported Georgia, has been described as ‘a post-cold war nadir for US-Russian relations’ (Mankoff, 109). Consequently, President Obama’s initiative was a necessary and essential step to improve bilateral relations, achieve a sustainable cooperative relationship, and overcome the legacy of suspicion and distrust. Also, both countries faced the threat of international terrorism, global economic crisis and other challenges of the 21 century.

According to the report ‘Russia and U.S. National Interests. Why Should Americans Care?’ prepared by a distinguished working group of experts under Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in October, 2011 ‘ Russia must be a top priority for the United States because its conduct can have a profound impact on America’s vital national interests:

- Nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia together possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons and most of the world’s weapons-usable material, and both are major suppliers of civilian nuclear technologies around the world;

- Non-proliferation. Russia plays a key role in U.S.-led international efforts to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials and technologies, which are sought not only by nation states, but also by non-state actors;

- Geopolitics. Russia is an important nation in today’s international system. Aligning Moscow more closely with Washington DC’s goals would bring significant balance of power advantages to the United States

—including managing China’s emergence as a global power;

- Afghanistan. Al Qaeda operatives have engaged in terrorist attacks against the United States and have encouraged and supported attacks by domestic terrorist groups in Russia. Russia has provided the United States with access to its airspace and territory as a critical alternative supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, something that has grown in importance as America’s relations with Pakistan have deteriorated;

- Energy. Russia is one of the world’s leading energy producers and is the top holder of natural gas reserves. Russia thus has a substantial role in maintaining and expanding energy supplies that keep the global economy stable and enable economic growth in the United States and around the world;

- Finance. Russia’s membership in the G8 and the G20 gives it a seat at the table for the most important financial and economic meetings and deliberations;

- Strategic Geography. Russia is the largest country on Earth by land area and the largest in Europe by population. It is located at a strategic crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the greater Middle East, and is America’s neighbor in the Arctic. As a result, Russia is close to trouble spots and is a critical transit corridor for energy and other goods (Allison et al. 9-10).

In spite of the fact that the national interests and goals of the foreign policies of both countries differ, there are some areas of cooperation such as:  slowing the spread of nuclear weapons; combating international terrorism; promoting a reliable international energy system; and sustaining a prosperous world economy (Allison et al. 11).                                         

As President Obama described it at the New Economic School graduation on July 7, 2009:  ‘the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game—progress must be shared. That's why I have called for a "reset" in relations between the United States and Russia. This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House... . It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and expand dialogue and cooperation that can pave the way to progress’ ( The Obama Administration made the policy of reset and improving relations with Russia a priority in its first term.

 In order to achieve the goals of the reset the Obama Administration intended ‘to  deepen interaction between top officials, structure government-to-government engagement, create conditions for increased trade and investment, and facilitate more society-to-society contact’ (McFaul).  

U.S. President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev released a joint statement that promised a "fresh start" in U.S.-Russia relations at the 2009 G20 summit in London. The statement also called on Iran to abandon its nuclear program and to permit foreign inspectors come into the country (Cooper).
The reset began.

Achievements of the Policy of Reset

According to the White House ‘U.S.-Russia Relations: “Reset” Fact Sheet’ during the time of the policy of ‘reset’, a number of important intergovernmental agreements have been concluded:

- on April 8, 2010, in Prague, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the New START Treaty, a strategic offensive arms reduction treaty. The New START Treaty reduced limits on U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warheads by approximately one third.  The Treaty limits each side to 1550 deployed strategic warheads, 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear armaments.  The Treaty has a strong verification regime to allow each party to confirm that the other party is in compliance with the treaty limits, including on-site inspections, data exchanges, exhibitions, and notifications about the movement and production of strategic systems, as well as a provision on non-interference with National Technical Means of verification;

- both countries completed an agreement that provided the flexibility needed for the United States to structure its forces at the reduced level to meet national security and operational requirements in Afghanistan. The agreement allowed ground and air transit for the U.S. troops and supplies for Afghanistan through Russia’s territory.  As a result, 30 percent of supplies to the U.S. troops in Afghanistan travel over the NDN (the Northern Distribution Network), and of this cargo, 65 percent of the supplies have been routed through the NDN transit through Russia;

- President Obama and President Medvedev also worked together and closely with other members of the UN Security Council concerning Iran and North Korea. UNSCR 1929 imposes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, its ballistic missile program, and, for the first time, its conventional military.  It was an important step for Russia; this agreement has confirmed that Russia will not deliver S-300 missiles to Iran, in accordance with the new resolution;

- both countries also reached an agreement on non-proliferation: on April 12-13, 2010, the United States and Russia signed a protocol to amend the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which commits both countries to dispose of 68 metric tons or approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons-worth of excess weapons-grade plutonium;

- both countries found mutual understanding in counterterrorism cooperation and military-to-military cooperation: the Presidents signed a joint statement on counterterrorism cooperation at Deauville Summit in May 2011 that resulted in co-training sessions for both American and Russian troops; in May 2012, for the first time ever, Russian paratroopers took part in a counterterrorism exercise at Fort Carson. Russia and the United States agreed to renew bilateral military cooperation and have approved a work plan for this cooperation under the Defense Cooperation Working Group of the Bilateral Presidential Commission (  

On July 6, 2009, Presidents Medevedev and Obama established the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Commission consisting of sixteen working groups. Since the time the Commission was established, many delegations have traveled to each country, numerous video conferences have been held, and numerous new bilateral activities and programs have emerged to pursue projects of mutual benefit to the American and Russian people.  (

 In order for Russia to join the WTO, the U.S. provided Russia a significant support in the form of different kind of assistance, bilateral agreements, etc. On August 12, 2012, Russia successfully joined World Trade Organization.  Allison at al. point out that ‘the United States and the West have sought to promote economic development in Russia to expand and empower the middle class, based on a belief that rising expectations among a large middle class will be a key driver of democratization. With this in mind, Russian membership in the World Trade Organization should be a high priority, given the WTO’s rule-setting functions and the potential economic benefits for the United States, Russia, and other countries in bringing the largest remaining economy outside the WTO into its framework’ (36).  

The U.S. and Russia have achieved weighty results in the field of innovation: two times (July 2009 in Moscow, June 2010 in Washington, DC) parallel business summits took place. President Medvedev Visited Silicon Valley in June, 2010; Governor Schwarzenegger led a Technology Delegation on October 2010 (McFaul); MIT-Skolkovo Partnership was set up; also an Innovation Working Group and  Rule of Law Working Group were organized for a better mutual cooperation ( The U.S. and Russia found themselves as very good partners in trade: in 2011 the level of U.S.-Russia trade reached $42.9 billion, the highest ever (McFaul).  The U.S. and Russia also found mutual interests in the Space, Health and Science, Environment, and Energy fields.

 Concerning the field of education, it’s worth acknowledging the establishment of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow in 2011 in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On October 26, 2011, the newly created Skoltech signed a trilateral agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Skolkovo Foundation to launch the first three years of collaboration to build capacity in education, research, and entrepreneurship programs at Skoltech (  

Connections between Russians and Americans have increased: in July, 2011 a New Agreement on visas was signed, allowing both tourists and business people receive three-year, multiple-entry visas to visit the other country (McFaul).

 Another result of the Reset policy, according to the US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, is the development of social, cultural and academic ties, as well as tourism. They have also led to increase favorable attitudes between Russian and American society.

 The given list of achievements of the reset policy contains the most important ones.

 Both Presidents found mutual understanding in promoting the policy of reset. President Obama considers the policy of reset results one of the biggest foreign policy achievements of his presidency.  President Medvedev was also satisfied with the results of the reset policy. “Prime Minister Medvedev said recently in Seoul that the last three years of the US-Russia relationship have been the best period in US-Russia relations in history," US Ambassador to Russia McFaul wrote (Weir).

US-Russian Disagreements

In spite of many significant achievements during the four years of the policy of reset, especially in arms control, nuclear proliferation, trade and business, there are some issues that create tension in the U.S-Russia relations, such as unpredictable business environment in Russia; corruption; selective justice; human rights violations. According to Allison et al.  ‘Today, Russia lacks the rule of law, checks and balances and meaningful political freedom (35).

Both countries have had serious disagreements on Syria, a deployment of the missile system in Europe and human rights. 


Washington and Moscow have different positions regarding the situation in Syria.  

The Obama administration has called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Moscow is against that action and backed by China, has vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad's government and threatening it with sanctions (Nesnera; ). The 15-member U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked for months over Syria ( During the internal conflict in Syria, thousands of civilians were killed and thousands of people fled the country. Both countries also have different views on the future of Syria.

 On September 14, 2013 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after three days of talks in Geneva, reached an agreement on the destruction of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons. President Obama welcomed the decision.  

The White House stressed that in case of Assad’s violation of his promises, the United States will be prepared to use force, but stressed that it looked forward to working with Russia to ensure the accountability of the transfer and destruction of chemical weapons.


Another disagreement is the Obama Administration’s plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe. Washington and its allies say this shield is designed to protect Europe against a possible missile strike by countries like Iran. Moscow says the anti-missile system - when deployed - could neutralize its strategic missile force, leaving Russia vulnerable to the West (Nesnera).

Human Rights

During the four years of the policy of reset, the Obama Administration was under criticism by the Republicans, especially by the US Senator John McCain, who has always been a severe critique of Putin’s undemocratic regime in Russia.        

Anatoliy Khomenko, who is an expert at the Foundry, believes that ‘the Obama Administration chose to compromise some certain aspects of U.S. national interests to achieve what President Obama considers his priorities, such as “getting to zero” nuclear disarmament. The United States is ignoring human rights violations and democracy clampdown in Russia to achieve agreement on other issues’ (Khomenko).  The only possible way to show disagreement on human right violations for the White House was to express concern on certain cases of human rights in Russia.

After returning Vladimir Putin to power in May 2012, the suppression of opposition and freedom of speech in the Russian society rapidly increased. In November 2012, the State Duma passed the bill that requires NGOs getting overseas funding and that are involved in political activities to label themselves as “foreign agents” in Russia (Ravelo). During March and April of 2013 there was lots of scrutiny of foreign-funded aid organizations in Russia. More than 80 NGOs have reportedly been investigated, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Moscow Helsinki Group (Ravelo). Some of them were brought to administrative responsibility.

On June 30, 2013, Russian President  Putin signed into law a bill banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," that caused lots of criticism and debates around the world as an act against international human rights standards (Grekov). President Obama also recently criticized Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law (McCain).

Many analysts and politicians claim that the Obama Administration has not been strong enough in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on civil society. John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, said, “It’s a measure of Putin’s confidence that he can basically act without fear of retaliation from the United States. That has helped embolden him to crack down: crack down on political dissent, crack down in the economic sphere, really trying to establish authority - not in a communist sort of way, but in the traditional fashion of a very, very strong central government’ (Nesnera).

On the other hand, it’s not easy for the Obama Administration to raise issues of human rights and political freedom as the Kremlin considers any advice or criticism as an intervention in domestic affairs and it may affect bilateral relations.

Issues Intensifying Tension between US and Russia

Returning Vladimir Putin to power in May 2012 seemed to complicate the continuance of policy of ‘reset’ for both sides because of the different approaches of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Many experts predicted the end of reset with the beginning of the third term of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the bill known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (Collinson). According to Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, ‘the U.S. Congress was unwilling to graduate Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and grant permanent normal trade relations without reaffirming its interests in human rights in Russia. When it became clear that Russia was going to complete its succession to the World Trade Organization and that Jackson-Vanik would have to be repealed for the United States to gain the trade advantages of Russia's WTO membership, Congress had to find a way of reaffirming that interest. The vehicle that they chose was the so-called Magnitsky Bill, which provided that anyone associated with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail for uncovering fraud by Russian authorities, would be barred from the United States and would have his or her assets in U.S. financial institutions frozen’ (Gwertzman).

The Magnitsky Law punishes Russian officials who were thought to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky by prohibiting their entrance to the United States and use of the banking system. The bill provoked outrage from the direction of the Russian authorities.

Soon afterwards, on December 28, 2012, President Putin signed the law no. 272-FZ of 2012-12-28 "On Sanctions for Individuals Violating Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of the Citizens of the Russian Federation" that bans the American people’s adoption of Russian children into the United States ( The bill was named after Dmitri Yakovlev, a Russian child who died in 2008 after neglect from his adoptive American father. This bill caused a very condemnatory reaction from many American officials, including some U.S. Senators from the Republican Party. John McCain issued a statement on December 28, 2012: ‘The idea that this legislation is any way comparable to the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act is utterly baseless. Our law singles out and punishes individual Russian officials who are corrupt and complicit in gross human rights abuses; Russia’s barring of adoptions broadly punishes the neediest, most defenseless, and most innocent members of its own society. In fact, this action by President Putin and the Russian parliament only affirms the purpose of the Magnitsky Act – namely, the need to defend the human rights and dignity of the Russian people–and makes the implementation of that law all the more essential’ (McCain).

Russia’s decision in 2012 to expel the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after many years of mutually beneficial work also increased tensions between Moscow and Washington.

The Kremlin argued that it was responding to the United States’ own retreat from the reset (Kurilla).

Most recently, granting temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, who has admitted to leaking secrets about U.S. national security surveillance (McCain), and then a subsequent decision of President Obama to abandon a presidential summit with Vladimir Putin in September, 2013 are additional signs of the US-Russian relations’ deterioration and the end of reset. The U.S. Senator McCain in his interview to CNN expressed his opinion that ‘The administration's hopes for a "reset" relationship with Russia have proved complicated and in some cases discouraging’ (

After the Reset

The reset has accomplished as much as it was supposed to do. In spite of some chill in bilateral relations that occurred in 2012, there were meaningful achievements during the four years of ‘reset’ between the two countries, particularly regarding nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, Iran, a new visa regime between the US and Russia, a strategic arms control agreement  (New START), trade and business. The relations improved and the policy of reset brought more mutual understanding and openness. At the same time, some significant differences and conflicting interests continue to remain and cause controversy in bilateral relations.

Because U.S. and Russian interests and values are not aligned, and perspectives and strategies are often even farther apart, Washington and Moscow at best will make progress in some areas and see setbacks in others—a reality that makes mutual trust even more important for managing differences (Allison et al.3). According to Dr.Zevelev, the Director of the Russian Office at the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation, ‘at the beginning of the 21st century the United States is still a superpower, but it is a superpower facing competition from beyond its borders, as well as internal difficulties. And Russia actually is one of the leading forces in the opposition to U.S. global dominance. Russia does not recognize unconditional American leadership. It insists on its own status of great power, or as an influential center of a multipolar world, as Russian foreign policy documents say. So, a true Russian-American partnership is possible, and they can cooperate in concrete areas. They can be partners in many areas, be it Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea. However, Russia will probably be a very difficult partner for the United States and other Western states, for that matter’ (

We also have to take into account the different personalities of the leaders and their profiles. According to Charles Kesler, ‘Barack Obama calls himself a progressive or liberal’, ‘he believes in justice and change; that is, he believes that change is almost always synonymous with improvement, that history has a direction and destination, that it’s crucial to be on the right side of history, not the wrong, and that it’s the leader’s job to discern which is the right side and to lead his people to that promised land of social equality and social justice’ (

Fyodor Lukyanov, an Editor-in-Chief of  Russia in Global Affairs journal, in his article ‘Uncertain World: Putin the Realist, Medvedev the Liberal’ compares two Russian leaders views and profiles and proves that ‘Medvedev is a genuine liberal, at least in terms of international relations. As a liberal, he thinks that foreign policy is determined by domestic policy and should be subservient to it.  Putin, by contrast, starts with the global picture and draws conclusions on how external events can influence domestic processes’ (Lukyanov).       

Two Russian Presidents, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, have different approaches towards relations with the US. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the US-Russian relationship ‘as a truly key relationship where friendship and understanding is absolutely essential’ (

A current Russian President Vladimir Putin is considered to be a conservative by many Western and American analysts, who has a KGB background, critical and mistrustful of the U.S. and whose hero is Yuri Andropov, KGB Chairman and later the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who played an active role in crushing the Prague Spring, invading Afghanistan in 1979, and suppressing the Soviet dissident movement.

A Russian philosopher and political scientist Alexander Dugin agrees that ‘during his third term as president, Vladimir Putin is starting to distinguish himself as a Russian conservative’, and argues that  the Russian conservatism has its own nature, both ‘anti-communist and anti-liberal’, Russian conservatives ‘value undivided political power, with economic power rooted in and subordinate to it. They value the traditions of established religion, sovereign foreign policy and the guarding of great power status’ (Dugin).

Former Russian foreign minister and former Secretary of the Russian Security Council and Russian International Affairs Council President, Igor Ivanov, said that ‘The “leaders” factor is of great importance in bilateral relation. If a positive signal for promoting relations arrives from the top, many of the problems which seem hopeless today will be resolved in both countries' interest’ (

The four-year reset has exhausted itself and currently, with Barack Obama’s second term and Vladimir Putin’s new presidency, a new strategy for a sustainable partnership is required. Professor of  Strategy and Director of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle R.Craig Nation believes that ‘the reset agenda will need to be embedded in a more substantial re-conceptualization of national policy that looks beyond bilateral ties to the underlying trends that are reshaping the 21st century strategic environment’ (24).

Both countries, in spite of different national interests and different views on how international issues should be solved, have areas of common interests they should continue to adhere to using a pragmatic approach and acting as partners. As the U.S. and Russia have a great potential and a significant impact on the world politics, they should persistently overcome disagreements in order to effectively cooperate and resolve the challenges of the 21st century together.


‘A law on sanctions for individuals violating fundamental human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens has been signed.’ -

 ‘A conversation with Dmitry Medvedev,’ New York, Council on Foreign Relations, 15 Nov. 2008.

Allison, Graham et al. ‘Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why Should Americans      

Care? ‘ Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard  University. February.2011.

Charbonneau, Louis and Michelle Nichols. ‘U.S., Russia, other big powers meet on Syria in New York.’ 11 September, 2013. Reuters. -

Collinson, Stephen. ‘Obama signs Russia rights law despite Putin fury.’ 14 December, 2012.

Cooper, Helene. ‘Promises of ‘Fresh Start’ for U.S.-Russia Relations.’ The New York Times.Retrieved 2010-03-29.

Dugin, Alexander. ‘The world needs to understand Putin.’ -

Grekov, Kes. ‘Russia's Anti-Gay Law, Spelled Out in Plain English.’

Gwertzman, Bernard, ‘Reassessing the U.S.-Russia 'Reset.’ Council on Foreign Relations. 13 December. 2012.

Ivanov, Igor. "Reset" has exhausted itself in Russian-American relations.’ Russian International Affairs Council. -

Kesler, Charles. R. ‘Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.’ The Heritage Foundation.  15 October, 2012 - Khomenko, Anatoliy. ‘Problems with Obama’s Russia ‘Reset’ Policy.’ 20 October, 2011.

Kitazume, Takashi. ‘U.S.-Russia relations stagnate as Obama’s ‘reset’ policy falters.’ 11  September, 2012. -

Kurilla, Ivan. ‘Don't Give Up on the U.S.-Russian Reset.’ 29 March, 2013.

McCain. ‘Russia has reset relations ... back to 1955.’ CNN

McFaul, Michael. ‘We Hope that We’ll Have a Normal Relationship.’

McFaul, Michael. ‘The ‘Reset: Theory, Results, Future.’

Minchev, Ognyan. ‘Putin relishes deteriorating US-Russia relations.’ 28 June, 2012

N/a. -

Nation, R.Craig. ‘Results of the ‘Reset’ in US-Russian Relations.’ July, 2010.

Nesnera, Andre. ‘Will 'Reset' in US-Russia Relations Continue?’ 11 January, 2013

President of Russia. Official web portal. 16 November, 2008.

Ravelo, Jenny Lei. ‘Uncertain future for NGOs in Russia.’

Remarks by the President B.Obama at the New Economic School Graduation.

Statement by the Press Secretary on H.R. 6156.  The White House. Office of Press Secretary.

The White House.U.S.-Russia Relations: “Reset” Fact Sheet. 24 June, 2010.

U.S.Senator John McCain. Press Releases. Statement. 28 December, 2012

Weir, Fred. ‘Ambassador McFaul, driver of US-Russia 'reset,' becomes his own obstacle.’ 30  May, 2013.  -

Zevelev, Igor. ‘Russian-American relations: Resetting the Reset.’ 27 March, 2012.

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