Summary of the breakout conversation “The Russian Reset” at the 2009 Annual Members’ Conference.


Hon. R. Nicholas Burns,* Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard; Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Hon. Richard R. Burt,* Senior Advisor, McLarty Associates; Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany; Member, Atlantic Council Strategic Advisors Group
Mr. Ronald Freeman,* Member of the Boards of Troika Dialog, Severstal and Volga Gas; Member, Atlantic Council Business and Economics Advisory Group
Mr. Ian Hague,* Co-Founder Firebird Management, LLC


This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.”  Below is a general summary of the topics discussed.

This session brought together top policymakers and business leaders with vast expertise on Russia to discuss the opportunities and tensions that dominate U.S.-Russia relations, and the prospects for moving the relationship forward.

 Three vital mutual interests provide the basis for cooperation between the United States and Russia. Perhaps most importantly, the Obama administrations’ decision to reset the relationship is premised on the need to cooperate on nuclear non-proliferation. Russia and the United States still hold 95% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Russia has been a key, albeit obstinate, player in the P5+1 talks with Iran, backing three Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran only after the measures were substantially diluted.  It is unclear whether current efforts to buy Russian support on tougher sanctions against Iran will bear fruit (Medvedev’s recent comments suggest Russian resistance towards sanctions is weakening).  On energy, Russia is a key supplier for European energy markets, but has famously used this as a tool to assert dominance over its Eastern neighbors.  Russia shares much of the same concerns as the United States on the threat of terrorism, and is perhaps more vulnerable as a recent surge of violence in the North Caucasus illustrates.  Despite clear incentives for cooperation on all three fronts, negotiations over strategic interests are complicated by deep political differences.

Important tensions continue to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States. The most severe is what one speaker coined “the problem of the post-Soviet space.” Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine are part of a concerted effort by Moscow to roll back democratic advances and foment instability in order weaken its neighbors.  To understand Moscow’s rationale, one speaker pointed to the importance of the Putin narrative which presents the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century,” and seeks to restore Russia’s rightful place as a great power. The idea that Russia should reassert its influence over its “near abroad” is one that is shared by many influential elites inside the Kremlin, not just Mr. Putin.  How the U.S. reassures Russia, while maintaining a commitment to its allies in the region will be an ongoing challenge.

Could future developments inside of Russia pose an opportunity for greater cooperation? On this point our speakers diverged. Some warned of a weaker and more aggressive Russia as demographic and economic challenges grow more severe. Others painted a more optimistic picture. Russia’s rising middle class could become the key to a more open society that demands transparency and societal reforms. While Russia’s business elites share an “armed peace” with the government in which they can prosper so long as they stay away from politics and steer clear of the media, they are also the vanguards of Russia’s global economic integration. Russia also boasts significant human capital and a degree of independence among its small and medium-sized enterprises, which could present opportunities for foreign investment and economic cooperation, particularly in new industries, such as nanotechnology (an idea Medvedev embraces in his candid assessment on Russia’s economy). While some believe that Putin is likely to maintain power indefinitely, others offered a tempered view, claiming, “Putin is likely to remain a factor in Russia politics for years to come, but Medvedev and those around him may also begin to assert greater power.” Our speakers varied in their assessment of how these dynamics will play out in foreign policy. Some saw Russia as a more difficult partner than the other BRIC countries. Others argued that Russia is not alone in favoring a multi-polar world in which other countries have more room to become regional powers.

– Summary by Cynthia Romero, Assistant Director, Transatlantic Relations Program