U.S.-Russia ties: Better than you think
June 6th, 2013
07:35 AM ET

U.S.-Russia ties: Better than you think

By Jeffrey Mankoff, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program. The views expressed are his own.

Faced with an increasingly complex international environment, President Barack Obama is quietly re-emphasizing one of the main priorities of his first term: trying to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. This may come as a surprise – after all, the atmosphere between the two countries has been decidedly frosty the past year. But although the high-profile outreach of the first-term “reset” may have been set aside, the Obama administration has been pursuing low key, concrete cooperation on issues ranging from Syria to Afghanistan to counter-terrorism. And, freed from the political baggage surrounding the reset, such cooperation is likely to prove more sustainable – and more effective at advancing U.S. interests.

Obama’s first term got off to a good start. Washington and Moscow agreed to cut their nuclear forces under the New START agreement, and Russia also provided logistical support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Russia supported Iran sanctions and ultimately acquiesced to U.S. requests for intervention in Libya. This cooperation was symbolized by the bright red (but mistranslated) reset button that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to her Russian counterpart in Geneva in 2009. As several of Obama’s other first term international initiatives fell by the wayside, the U.S.-Russia reset became one of his highest profile foreign policy achievements.

But this made the reset vulnerable when the political winds in Moscow and Washington shifted. Disputed Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011 brought massive protests into the streets of Moscow. Russia’s presidential transition six months later saw Vladimir Putin replace Dmitry Medvedev, with whom Obama had developed a close working relationship.

Not only did Putin’s previous tenure in the Kremlin coincide with a worsening of U.S.-Russian relations (culminating with the August 2008 war in Georgia), but the returning president now turned to anti-American populism to shore up his tenuous legitimacy. This included unprecedented harassment of new U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, previously the architect of the reset at the White House. Putin’s new government also cracked down on civil society groups, especially those with ties to the West. USAID was expelled, and NGOs receiving funds from abroad were required under a new law to register as foreign agents.

More from GPS: How Russia fears being forgotten

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, was working to pass a bill imposing visa and financial sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating a tax fraud scheme implicating several high-ranking figures when he was arrested and subsequently died in prison. Though the Obama administration believed that the so-called Magnitsky Act was unwise (and duplicated steps it was already taking), its options were constrained by the bill’s bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and election year politics, including Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney’s invocation of Russia as Washington’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

Making matters worse was the escalating crisis in Syria, where U.S. demands for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad ran headlong into Russian support for a strategic ally and opposition to foreign intervention, despite a mounting humanitarian disaster. In the last few weeks, Russia’s very public expulsion of an American diplomat accused of espionage has contributed further to the perception of crisis in U.S.-Russian relations.

Behind the scenes though, Obama has sought to boost cooperation, and early indications are that these efforts are succeeding. He announced the cancellation of phase 4 of the planned U.S. missile defense system in Europe, and limited the application of the Magnitsky law to a small number of fairly minor officials.

U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon then traveled to Moscow carrying a letter from Obama to Putin laying out new initiatives for cooperation, including heightened transparency on U.S. missile defense plans, further nuclear reductions, a new communication channel between the U.S. vice president and the Russian prime minister, and the creation of a secure video link for communications between the White House and Kremlin. Putin and Secretary of State John Kerry then agreed to co-sponsor a conference seeking a negotiated end to the bloodshed in Syria. Donilon’s counterpart Nikolay Patrushev was just in Washington, with a letter from Putin emphasizing the need to find an agreement on missile defense.

This diplomatic activity underscores Obama’s recognition that Russian cooperation is necessary on several issues that will shape his legacy. The Boston Marathon bombing brought a renewed focus on the need for cooperation between intelligence services to counter terrorism. Russian intelligence and logistical cooperation will be especially critical during and after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. While prospects for Syria’s future remain very uncertain, U.S.-Russian cooperation represents the only plausible path to a negotiated end to the conflict (despite al-Assad’s statement implying that he had received advanced S-300 air defense units from Moscow, Putin told European Union leaders this week that Russia had in fact suspended their delivery).

Unlike the reset, Obama is wisely keeping his outreach to Moscow low profile this time. Yet if a more cooperative relationship with Moscow leads to stronger intelligence cooperation, a deal on missile defense, and a viable Syrian peace process, it may come to stand as a key foreign policy achievement of Obama’s second term too.

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Topics: Russia • United States

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soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Jerry

    Let's just hope that the Russians don't get duped again like they did in 1939 by German Foreign Secretary Ribbentrop. Hopefully, Vladimir Putin will be wise enough to perceive the sinister plans that the U.S., Great Britain and France have for the Middle East.

    June 6, 2013 at 8:33 am | Reply
    • YoungNiceGuy

      Russia's plans for the Middle East are hardly altruistic. It merely wants Assad in power so it can have a say in the Middle East and keep the growing Muslim population inside it's borders in check. Russia suffers from having weak alliances with countries that are small and aren't influential on a global scale. If Russia loses Syria, then it basically loses most of the influence it has in a very geopolitical region to the USA, GCC and China.

      June 6, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
      • ROBERT DUNMEYER

        iisrael is the tiny country of no significance the usa is bogged down with.

        June 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  2. Babeouf

    The problem has always been that while the US government has always wanted a relationship with the Russian regime that was ' more effective at advancing U.S. interests.' at no time could it bring itself to recognise that the government of Russia had its own legitimate interests. I see no sign as yet that US government actually recognises that Russia has 'National Interests' if these diverge from US preconceptions.

    June 6, 2013 at 9:17 am | Reply
    • YoungNiceGuy

      I'm sure both nations realize that each has their own national interests. Its merely a matter of seeing which interests match or are harmless to both nations.

      June 6, 2013 at 9:41 am | Reply
  3. YaValioCacaWates

    I don't trust the Russian bear. Putin's seems to have a goal of starting a NWO with him calling the shots. King Putin seems to go against anything the USA comes up with., Russian in general has been doing this for decades.

    June 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  4. Den

    God bless Russia!
    Russia is the last country wich stop German naci and now will do the same with naci from USA-GB-Isr-Fr

    June 6, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, Den. Nothing can be closer to the truth!

      June 6, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  5. raydar07

    It is true that the US-Russia ties are better than most people think. The two superpowers profit on wars, weapons sales, disease, and death on a global scale. Behind closed doors, both nations are as equally corrupt. They use smaller "allied" countries to play war games. They inject the war virus, sell them weapons, and profit from death and organ harvesting.

    I don't expect any of you to agree with my opinion, because they blind will always remain blind.

    If you want to solve this problem, destroy the root, and the branches will fall.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • mirage0777

      Finally, someone in this world that thinks like i do, there might be hope for humanity after all... or else it's faith will be sealed from these blind people.

      July 2, 2013 at 2:43 am | Reply
  6. Jack

    Russia will be pretty inconsequential to the power politics of the 21st century, which will be dominated by two former British colonies and an Ancient country; Russia will be like Great Britain or France during the Cold War.

    June 7, 2013 at 12:22 am | Reply
  7. Andrey

    I did not read the article: it does not make sense to read any CNN articles about Russia: they are all full of hate and fear-mongering.
    Relations between Russia and US are as bad as they look (if not worse). And I do not see any chance of them getting better any time soon. I think Russia should completely turn away from US and EU and care more about developing its relations with China, India, Brazil... – in fact, everybody else except US and EU! And Russia should get rid of its dollar and Euro reserves too!

    June 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  8. giggig

    Stalin,Khrushchev and putin = kgb ,i do not trust Mr. Putin.Relations between Russia and US are as bad as they look (if not worse). Stalin initiated/invented an aggressionwar ,the Korea war 1950 , costs us (resp. the United Nations according Wikepedia 180000 dead 30000 MiA's) . Khrushchev commanded,an aggressionwar , to push the button in cuba,lucky that Submarine Commander refused to push. Now we have Putin wheeling ,dealing ,manipulating and agitating behind scenes with Assad and Ammadinnerjacket to arrange our fall down.Suck us with an absolute certainty into a ridiculous war out in the sand,EAST OF SUEZ, That can easily keep Obama in marshal law at the end(resp. instead of the end-) of his last term, that will cost again blood and treasure at astronomical expenses. Please be carefull , every word he says could be a trick,a lie a distraction maneuver.

    June 7, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      giggig must be from Israel: that's where the most vicious Russia haters live these days! They would give you made-up historic "facts" from 600 years back to show that Russians can not be trusted! Who cares man: Russians do not want your trust, they do not need it: they do not care about liberal piece of crap like your! Go have your own aggressive wars: you will not even have to look so far back: it is all going on right now!

      June 8, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  9. giggig

    Stalin,Khrushchev and putin = kgb ,i do not trust Mr. Putin.Relations between Russia and US are worse than they look ). Stalin initiated/invented an aggressionwar ,the Korea war 1950 , costs us (resp. the United Nations according Wikepedia 180000 dead 30000 MiA's) . Khrushchev commanded,an aggressionwar , to push the button in cuba,lucky that Submarine Commander refused to push. Now we have Putin wheeling ,dealing ,manipulating and agitating behind scenes with Assad and Ammadinnerjacket to arrange our fall down.Suck us with an absolute certainty into a ridiculous war out in the sand,EAST OF SUEZ, That can easily keep Obama in marshal law at the end(resp. instead of the end-) of his last term, that will cost again blood and treasure at astronomical expenses. Please be carefull , every word he says could be a trick,a lie a distraction maneuver.

    June 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      What a stupid comment the above is. It's the U.S., Great Britain and France that want to take over the Middle East, not Russia! That's the reason they want Assad out since he's the only Arab leader who hasn't sold out to the West like the rest of them!

      June 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    this site is jammed again!

    June 8, 2013 at 5:47 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Moscow and Washington know very well that they need each other to handle various problems.

      June 8, 2013 at 5:49 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        The ruffling of American feathers since Putin took office was orchestrated for home consumption.

        June 8, 2013 at 5:50 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Quietly behind the scene, the Kremlin reaches out to the US and urges for cooperation.

        June 8, 2013 at 5:51 am |
      • Andrey

        What would Moscow need Washington for? There are no economic relations between Russia and US, there are no military relations, there are no cultural relations... Do I have to continue the list of relations which do not exist: it may take the whole day!

        June 8, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
      • Andrey

        P.S. "Quietly behind the scene, the Kremlin reaches out to the US and urges for cooperation." – in your dreams!

        June 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  11. cnnlies

    CNN is full of lies. More propaganda. Russia continues to support Syria Assad agains the obama back Al Qaeda rebels that k1lled us troops in iraq. Obama continues his nazi play against freedoms and civil rights.

    June 8, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  12. rightospeak

    Just like so many "experts' the author seems very biased and is a mouthpiece for the Globalists that do not like Putin , because Putin will not allow them to rob Russia. We are buying OIL from Russia so all must be well.

    June 9, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply

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