Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev had a cordial meeting last week. No major breakthroughs occurred, but both men indicated that they could do business together. That’s not going to be enough.


All jokes about “reset buttons” aside, the problem is that the executive branch of the U.S. government is not the one with the power to act. Russia has its own constraints—as Damon Wilson observed. But Russia’s maneuvering room is constrained more by external factors—the economic situation, the oil price, and so on. Obama, in contrast, is straight-jacketed by Congressional legislation—some of which he, his vice-president, and his secretary of state voted for when they were members of the Senate.

One of the most contentious issues is the further expansion of the North Atlantic alliance to encompass former Soviet republics within its ranks. The NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007 is quite clear: “Congress calls for the timely admission of … Georgia … and Ukraine” into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This includes providing support for these states to bring about this goal. So the president doesn’t have the ability, if he so desired, to reach some sort of modus vivendi with Moscow (say, to agree to neutral status for Georgia in return for reintegration of its separatist regions). U.S. legislation commits him to advocate for NATO expansion—while he relies on the continued opposition of France, Germany and other continental European states to prevent this from becoming a reality—not exactly putting him in the driver’s seat.

And other key items on the agenda? They must go through the Congressional gatekeeper. World Trade Organization membership for Russia? For it to become operative in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, Congress must graduate Russia from the requirements of the Jackson-Vanik legislation. George W. Bush promised to do this back in 2001, in the first term of his presidency—but never mustered the political capital needed to see this process through Congress. And this was back in the afterglow of the first Bush-Putin meetings, when it seemed we might be on the verge of a radically different relationship with Moscow. Now, with all the problems that have accumulated over the last eight years—including questions about Russia’s “backsliding on democracy”—what member of Congress is going to get rid of the one of the few tools left in the American toolbox to pressure Russia?

And in one area where new ground could be broken in the U.S.-Russia relationship—a nuclear partnership—the “123 agreement” must receive Congressional sanction. The Bush Administration let its 123 agreement with Russia lapse after it was made clear—by the current vice-president, Joe Biden, no less—that such an agreement had no chance of receiving Congressional sanction. Has anything changed from 2008 to today that would lead Biden to change his opinion—and if so, would he lobby Congress? There doesn’t appear to be any sign of this happening.

So President Obama can talk about change—but much of his leverage vis-à-vis Russia is constrained by Congress. And given his ambitious domestic agenda, how much capital will his chief of staff recommend he waste on the Russia portfolio?

Fedor Lukyanov recently observed, “Obama won’t be able to start U.S. policy in the region with a clean slate.” The question is, how much of what’s already on the board is he willing—and able—to erase?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.