What Obama's Second Term Could Mean for U.S.-Russian Relations

Former U.S. ambassador Steven Pifer offers a preview

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Obama meets with Putin at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18th, 2012. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Following his reelection, U.S. President Barack Obama now faces the task of revitalizing U.S.-Russian relations. Ties between Washington and Moscow have seemed to stagnate somewhat since the "reset" of 2009-10 and the return to the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin. I spoke recently with Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a former deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Russia and Ukraine (2001-04). He is also a noted expert on arms-control issues.

Before we begin discussing U.S-Russia relations in President Barack Obama's second term, could you give us an overview of relations over the last four years?

I think the reset succeeded in the sense that when Obama took office in 2009, U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just go back to the fall of 2008 and the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, when you had a U.S.-Russia relationship that had nothing but difficult issues and issues where there wasn't a lot of cooperation. And I think the Obama administration made a calculation that improving that relationship would be in the U.S. interest in order to secure Russian help on issues that were important to the administration, such as pressuring Iran, such as access to Afghanistan. And therefore it set about trying to address some Russian concerns in order to secure Russian help on those questions.​​
And in that sense I think it has been successful. You have seen the new START treaty. You've seen on Iran -- people sometimes forget [that] two years ago Russia supported the UN Security Council resolution that, among other things, imposed an arms embargo on Iran and thereafter Russia canceled the sale of the S-300, which is a sophisticated antiaircraft missile that it had [an] earlier contract to sell to Iran. And the Russians have been very helpful in providing access to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, which has been important when Pakistan cut off supply lines. So I think by any objective measure, the relationship today is better than it was in 2008, although it is certainly not a relationship that is without problems.

Now, looking ahead, what are the prospects for the next four years?

I think we have passed the reset stage. The reset succeeded and we are now into something else. In the last four years, the sides have made progress solving some relatively easy issues -- they weren't [completely] easy issues, but they were easier than some of the questions they now face. The challenge looking forward is can you sustain a more positive U.S.-Russia relationship, and I think that's the big question mark. The relationship today is, again, by any objective measure, better than it was in 2008, but can you sustain that? Can you continue to find ways to improve it or are some of the gains of the last four years going to be eroded? And at this point, we just don't know.

I think that one of the problems is that with the last year, you have had an election in Russia and an election in the United States. Obviously I think the elections run on very different terms, but it has been a distraction for both capitals. They haven't engaged with the intensity they might have over the past year. Now the question becomes: With those elections behind them, will they be able to reengage and find ways to move?

In particular...the Obama administration is interested in trying to move forward on further nuclear arms reductions. It would like to find a cooperative solution, a cooperative missile-defense arrangement that would defuse that question on the agenda. And my sense is that for the last 18 months the Russians have been pretty much in a holding pattern on arms control and missile defense because they didn't want to go too far down the road with the Obama administration and then find that they were dealing with a Republican in 2013. And I had Russian officials telling me as early as the summer of 2011, well over a year ago, that they weren't going to do anything more on nuclear arms reductions until 2013 because they didn't want to move until they saw who the American president was going to be. They now know that answer, so the question is: Are they prepared to reengage in a more positive way on those questions?

You suggested it might be possible to find a compromise position on missile defense in Europe. What might that look like?

Russia says -- and we heard this last week, I mean, this is still the Russian position -- that they need a legal guarantee that the American missile defenses will not be again directed against Russian strategic forces. Now, if Russia wants to continue to stalemate missile defense, they will hold to that position because Russian officials understand -- their embassy here is smart, they report this -- there is no way that President Obama, even if he wanted to do a legal guarantee, a treaty on missile defense, there is no way that the treaty would be ratified by the Senate. And people understand that here, and people understand that in Moscow. So the question, in my mind, is: Will the Russians find a way to move off that demand for a legal guarantee? Which is a recipe for stalemate. If they move off that demand, then you can see a lot of pieces that are out there...that would provide the basis for a solution.

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