In London today, President Obama will begin to test whether he can hit the reset button in U.S.-Russian relations during his first bilateral meeting with President Medvedev.  This is not the first time the United States has tried to “reset” relations with a post-Soviet Moscow.

During the spirit of cooperation following 9/11, the United States advocated successfully for the launch of the NATO-Russia Council to symbolize the start of a new era of strategic cooperation between Russia and the West.  The disappointment from this earlier effort offers lessons for this administration’s attempt to get it right with Moscow.

Aspirations of Pratica di Mare

On May 28, 2002, the leaders of the NATO nations and Russia gathered on a sterile airbase outside Rome which Prime Minister Berlusconi transformed into a glamorous, TV-friendly venue in a matter of days (complete with imported Roman antiquities).  Together at Pratica di Mare Air Force Base, these leaders formed the NATO-Russia Council.  I was a witness to this event as I was working for then-NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson.In an impressive piece of politics and theater – the entire Summit was broadcast live – NATO leaders and then-President Putin launched what was a promising start to a more mature partnership between Russia and the West, replacing the languishing Permanent Joint Council (PJC) with the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).  The key difference between these two fora was that the NRC was charged as a body where NATO and Russia would undertake joint action and joint decisions.  Symbolically, the shift from PJC to NRC meant that Russia no longer sat at the head of the table with the other 19 Allies arrayed around it – that is “19+1” in NATO jargon – but rather, the members of the NRC sat “at 20” with the Russian Federation sitting as an equal participant between Portugal and Spain.

When pressed at the news conference on the real difference between the fora, Lord Robertson explained that the difference between “19+1” and “at 20” was in the “chemistry, not the arithmetic.”  What he meant is that the leaders assembled at Pratica di Mare made sweeping commitments to pursue a “new quality” in deepening cooperation among the nations.  Bush even stated that, “The NATO-Russia Council offers Russia a path toward forming an alliance with the Alliance.”

After the Summit, Robertson pressed his staff to scrounge up funding so that he could publish all of the leaders’ remarks in a book.  This was not an act of vanity, but rather an effort to memorialize the words of the leaders as he knew that one of the most difficult tasks of his tenure would be to hold the nations around the table accountable to their commitments.  His expectations unfortunately bore out. 

Rome Versus Bucharest Six Years Later

If you contrast that summit with the only other subsequent NATO-Russia leader-level meeting at the April 2008 Bucharest Summit, the change is dramatic.  Putin’s handling of the same topic at both summits is illustrative.  In 2002, when asked at the post-summit press conference about Ukraine seeking membership in the Alliance, he answered, “Ukraine is an independent, sovereign state and will choose its own path to peace and security…. Such a conversation would be entirely appropriate and entirely possible.  I certainly don’t see there being anything particularly tricky here, anything that need or that could cast a shadow over relations between Russia and Ukraine.”

Jump forward to 2008 during which Ukraine’s effort to obtain a Membership Action Plan (MAP or NATO’s training program for nations interested in possible membership) cast a long shadow over the relationship between Moscow and Kyiv.  In the lead up to the Bucharest Summit, Putin – with Ukrainian President Yushchenko standing by his side – threatened to target Ukraine with nuclear missiles.  In Bucharest, Putin sensationally questioned Ukraine’s statehood and challenged its territorial integrity.

What Changed?

Why would Putin’s answer to the same question on Ukraine and other issues change so dramatically?  And what does this tell us about how to manage relations with Russia in the coming years?  Many have argued that what led to this shift in Russia’s approach was U.S. policy.  We provoked Russia’s anger, the argument goes, by our positions on democracy, Georgia and Ukraine, missile defense, energy security, and Kosovo.

Certainly a key development between these two summits was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which brought to power a Ukrainian leader truly committed to pursuing Ukraine’s integration into Western democratic institutions, arguably in contrast to his predecessor’s lip service about MAP.  However, I would argue that what significantly contributed to the collapse of the spirit of Pratica di Mare is not simply U.S. policy and the Orange Revolution, or even largely U.S. policy and the Orange Revolution, but rather the authoritarian trajectory on which Putin set Russia and the consequent evolution of Russian thinking.

In 2002, we had great expectations for the continued, albeit difficult and gradual, development of Russia as a modern, democratic state.  In fact, much of what was said outside Rome was aspirational.  The NATO-Russia Council did not yet reflect the reality of the West’s cooperation with Russia, but defined a new quality that we all hoped to achieve.

In the intervening years, Putin’s approach to governance became clearer as the Kremlin increasingly stifled political pluralism, independent media and economic actors beyond the reach of the Kremlin, laying the groundwork for perpetuating centralized control.  At the same time, Russia’s interaction with the world, and especially the West, became a factor in its internal governance.

As Stephen Sestanovich has written in Foreign Affairs, ““what changed the relationship far more than any disagreements themselves was a shift in the way Russian leaders understood them.”  He continued, “From Putin on down, Russian leaders continued to put heavy emphasis on their ideological estrangement from the West…. The reason is simple:  Confrontation on this issue has paid enormous political dividends.”

The result is that U.S actions with which Putin was comfortable in 2002 increasingly became seen only through the lens of a zero-sum dynamic, setting us up for repeated confrontations.  Whereas working with the United States had been a source of domestic strength for the Russian leadership, confrontation took its place.  Consequently, while Washington previously conceived of a positive agenda in which the United States and Russia could accomplish much together, the agenda increasingly became a negative one – that is, how to prevent Russia from undermining U.S. interests.

Missile defense is a good example.  U.S. proposals on expanding missile defense assets into eastern Europe originated in proposals which were intended to include Russia and NATO in a joint missile defense architecture.  The U.S. presented Russia with proposal after proposal.  The lack of substantive response led many to conclude that Moscow was not serious about a cooperative endeavor, but simply sought to delay any movement.

Today’s Opportunity and Challenge

Thus, as we think about how to manage relations with Russia and as the Obama Administration hits the “reset button,” it is important to recognize that a more positive relationship does not simply hinge on U.S. policy, but probably more importantly, Russian policy.  We need the Russians to hit their own “reset button.”

What has changed in recent months are not the underlying dynamics of U.S. or Russian interests, but rather the politics.  The “reset button” is good rhetoric.  The Obama Administration is helping to create a change in atmosphere.  The challenge is whether Washington and Moscow can build a positive agenda, and not just mitigate the negative.

We all hope Moscow will respond, and after some short-sighted early Russian mistakes – including Medvedev’s threat to deploy short-range Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad – there are increasingly good initial signs.  Russian officials seem now to be on message with new talking points, eschewing the Soviet-style rhetoric to which we had become accustomed and signaling optimism.

This is good news.  But we need to be cautious and prudent and proceed with our eyes wide open.  This atmosphere is not new after all.  It is what existed in 2001-2002, although perhaps more sober than at Pratica di Mare.  But it is important that we not be forced to re-learn some of lessons already learned or make some of the mistakes already made.

This effort will not succeed if Russia decides not to cooperate.  In part, what we see now is Russia seeking to gain leverage over the relationship with United States and NATO.  It is a very clear strategy:  Shut off alternative routes to support NATO operations in Afghanistan, while making available routes that cross Russia.  Ensure all Caspian energy supplies to Europe either cross Russian territory or pass through infrastructure controlled by Russian interests.  Threaten a more militaristic presence in Kaliningrad and Latin America to gain bargaining chits with the United States on issues such as missile defense or the U.S. military presence in the Black Sea region.  Russia likes leverage.

Furthermore, part of impacting Russian strategic thinking over time is providing Russia opportunities to succeed with us – for example on strategic and conventional arms control (START/CFE) – but to keep clear limits as well.  If Russia over time does not conclude that actions such as its invasion of Georgia come at a high cost to its interests, then we may fail to check those tendencies.  That is why it is so important to continue the effort the United States undertook last year to ensure that in the wake of Russia’s invasion, the West does everything to help Georgia’s economy and democracy grow even stronger.  It is why the United States should continue its efforts to help forge a consensus within the European Union on energy security premised on diversifying the routes and supplies of energy into Europe.Over the long run, we need Russia to conclude that recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a loser for Moscow.  Russians needs to appreciate that lesson not through in-your-face tactics, but come to that conclusion through their own analysis.  That is, we need Russia to think like a 21st century power, not a 19th century power protecting its sphere of influence.

As the Obama Administration moves forward with a review of Russia policy, it is important to factor in that Russia’s most recent track record is 19th century, not 21st century.  We must be careful to neither sacrifice our friends, nor our values.  And we need to think just as hard about sound policy toward Europe’s East – all of those nations not within the institutions of NATO or the European Union – as we do about Russia. 

Limitations of the Relationship

We must also be sober about the prospects for what our relationship with Russia can achieve.  Russia can play a helpful role on key global security issues.  But while we want Russia as a partner on Iran and nonproliferation, we often overestimate what the Russians can bring to the table.

A partnership with Russia is possible and desirable, but the role that Russia can play with us will be limited for the foreseeable future.  The bonds among NATO Allies are so enduring because they are based not only on common interests, but on shared values.  Until Russia’s leaders begin to value democracy and human rights for their own people and the sovereignty and freedom of their neighbors, the possibilities for partnership with the West will necessarily be limited.

Damon Wilson is director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.

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