American and Russian leaders cannot agree on much these days. Yet pressing problems such as Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program and post-withdrawal Afghanistan demand U.S.-Russia cooperation.
Liberals in both countries attribute the relationship’s difficulties to the erosion of democracy in Russia, their logic being that a convergence on basic political values would enable greater cooperation. Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy toward Moscow proceeds from a different premise, namely that America and Russia can find areas for cooperation despite disagreements on democracy and human rights because, on some issues, self-interest unites them. Thus the reset involves better communication, constructive high-level meetings and a change in tone -- in short, the standard diplomatic fixes.
Unfortunately, the problem in the U.S.-Russia relationship is much bigger and more complicated than either approach recognizes. It reflects deep changes within Russia as well as President Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the challenges they pose.