The Realist Prism: U.S., Russia Must Shed Illusions to Salvage Reset

The Realist Prism: U.S., Russia Must Shed Illusions to Salvage Reset

One of the challenges that President Barack Obama faces in his second term is how to salvage his vaunted reset of relations with Russia. An important assumption in Obama’s attempt to jumpstart what had been a rapidly deteriorating bilateral relationship during the second terms of both George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin was that Obama would be dealing with a younger, more modern, liberalizing Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president. While there was no illusion that Putin, as prime minister, was still an influential figure in Russian politics, the reset was predicated on the hope that Medvedev would, over time, emerge as the dominant decision-maker in Moscow.

Such hopes were dashed when Putin announced last year that he would “swap” jobs with Medvedev, reclaiming the presidency for a third term. Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin, he has effectively terminated the tandem, with Medvedev relegated to a clearly subordinate position as prime minister. The warm ties that Obama enjoyed with Medvedev are not on display with Putin, making it unlikely that Russian-American relations in the future will be driven by a close personal relationship between the two presidents. Matters are compounded by what the United States sees as the growing authoritarian tendencies of the third Putin administration, in contrast to the liberalizing promise of the Medvedev team.

All this notwithstanding, there is no reason for U.S.-Russia relations to return to the nadir of 2007, when analysts were predicting a “new Cold War” between Washington and Moscow. But both sides will have to be prepared to let go of cherished illusions.

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