DCSIMG

U.S.-Russia Relations Under the Obama Administration



As prepared

Thank you very much for having me here today. It’s great to be back at GMF and I look forward to this exchange of views.

This is a timely moment to take stock of U.S.-Russian relations — eighteen months into the Obama Administration, eighteen months into the “reset” of relations between our two countries, and nearly one year since the Obama-Medvedev summit in Moscow. President Medvedev will soon be traveling to the United States, visiting Silicon Valley and holding a series of meetings in Washington as well. The trip in a sense caps a year and a half of hard work in reorienting our relationship and offers a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come.

I’d like to start by going through the basic logic of the “reset”. When President Obama came into office less than six months after the Georgia war, U.S.-Russian relations were at their lowest point in years and perhaps in the post-Cold War period. There were other troubling events that had colored the recent past as well:

  • Gas cutoffs to Ukraine
  • A cyber-attack on Estonia
  • Virulently anti-Western speeches from Putin including one in which he compared U.S. policies to those of the Third Reich
  • The resumption of Russian strategic bomber air patrols along the Norwegian coast and as far away as the Caribbean
  • President Medvedev’s threat to deploy Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad

President Obama and Secretary Clinton had no illusions about the differences we had and continue to have with Russia, but they also recognized that the level of acrimony and distrust that pervaded U.S.-Russian relations did not serve U.S. interests. Moreover, they saw that the poisonous atmosphere between the two countries was a threat to the stability and security of Europe itself. The relationship was undermined by a lack of trust and the absence of any political structures for constructive dialogue, let alone cooperation. This meant not only were we not getting anything done but that Russia had nothing at stake in its relations with the United States and so was uninterested in considering U.S. positions.

And so the idea behind the reset was a simple one: The United States and Russia have significant common interests and where the United States and Russia have common interests, we should cooperate. Where we have differences, we will be honest about them, both in private and in public, and work to move the Russians to more reasonable positions. We will pursue a better relationship with Russia in our mutual interest and we will do so without sacrificing our principles or our friends. With these basic propositions as a guide, we have pursued a path of principled engagement. And we believe that path has yielded considerable results.

There may have been a time during the course of last year when one could have asked, “What has the reset really gotten us?” It’s a legitimate question, but the implied critique is not really sustainable halfway into 2010. The Obama Administration’s new approach to Russia has produced considerable results that have advanced U.S. interests on a host of vital issues. Some of the most prominent include:

  • The New START Treaty, which is the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades. The Treaty cuts – by about a third – the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, to guarantee our commitment to the security of our Allies, and to move responsibly toward world without nuclear weapons. 
  • We concluded a lethal air transit agreement that has now permits, on average, two U.S. planes a day to fly over Russia carrying troops and supplies in support of the mission in Afghanistan. To date, over 275 flights have carried over 35,000 passengers and valuable cargo. Russia’s rail network has facilitated transit of more than 10,000 containers of supplies. And Russia’s willingness to consider NATO’s request for helicopters, spare parts, and training to the Afghan National Security Forces open the door to additional important security assistance. About 30% of cargo to Afghanistan goes through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and 60% of the NDN goes through Russia. 
  • Well over 100 meetings and exchanges have taken place under the auspices of the Binational Presidential Commission, bringing together over 60 Russian and American government agencies, not to mention multiple private sector and non-governmental partners. We have achieved concrete results: 
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    • On security, we have agreed to dispose of enough weapons-grade plutonium for 17,000 nuclear warheads;
    • On economics, American companies were the first to announce investments in Russia’s Skolkovo innovation center, while Russia just awarded a 50-aircraft tender for Boeing 737s worth $4 billion;
    • On people-to-people cooperation, we completed in May our first ever youth basketball exchange in the United States and supported over 40 American cultural events in Russia.
    • We are working on many other areas from the environment to terrorism.

The UN Security Council has just enacted a series of tough sanctions against the Iranian regime, aimed at sharpening the choice for Iran between continued isolation and addressing the concerns of the international community about its nuclear program. In crafting and passing this resolution, we worked very closely with the Russian government. This is a real contrast from where things stood on this issue a year ago or even six months ago. I was with Secretary Clinton in Moscow in October when the headlines were “Russia Rebuffs US on Sanctions.” We have seen a real change in the Russian attitude. This also comes on the heels of our cooperation on UNSC resolution 1874 on North Korea. These are clear examples where our common interest in preventing nuclear proliferation combined with our new diplomatic approach produced effective action.

We have maintained throughout the efforts to achieve these results a staunch insistence on our values and on defending our principles and friends. Where we agree with Russia, we seek to cooperate – and where we disagree, we do not hesitate to voice our differences. We have a very strong record to stand on of demonstrating the solidity of our strategic commitments and the firm principles behind them. Some have suggested compromises on Central European security, Georgia, and human rights as the “cost” of reset, but the argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

Central Europe. In July 2009, a group of Central European intellectuals released an open letter critical of the Obama Administration’s approach to the region. Yet the record clearly shows we have staunchly defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central European states and their basic right to choose their own alliances.

  • In September 2009, we announced the new Phased Adaptive Approach for European missile defense – which uses proven and new technology, covers more of Europe, and is therefore more responsive to the current and future security threats the continent faces. 
  • Nor does our cooperation with Russia imperil in any way our commitment to defend our Allies in accordance with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Neither the U.S. nor the Alliance views Russia as an enemy. And both the U.S. and our Allies are committed to engaging with Russia on areas of mutual interest, in particular as regards addressing the new security threats that emanate from outside Europe. At the same time, Article 5 means exactly what it says with respect to protecting the security of all our Allies, no matter where those threats may arise.

Georgia. We have been unambiguous in standing up for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. We have committed one billion dollars in assistance to Georgia to aid in its reconstruction. We have pursued a strategic partnership with Georgia – something I am actively involved in, with a great deal of high-level interaction between the United States and Georgian governments. And I just spent last week in Geneva in talks aimed at getting Russia to live up to the ceasefire commitments it agreed to in 2008, including pulling back its forces to the positions they held prior to the outbreak of the conflict. We will continue to support Georgia and stand by it.

Human Rights. We also continue to be plainspoken with Russia about our commitment to human rights and democracy. In every senior-level meeting I have participated in with Russian counterparts, these concerns have been raised. We believe that fostering a respect for human rights as well as promoting the development of strong democratic institutions and the rule of law are the keys to a stable, secure and prosperous Russia. The entire Obama Administration has engaged intensively on this issue: the President held a parallel civil society event during his visit, gave a speech in which he emphasized the importance of democracy to students at the New Economic School, met with opposition leaders, and gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta. Secretary Clinton has also met extensively with civil society leaders, gave a speech at Moscow State University describing how political freedom was necessary for progress, and gave an interview on Ekho Moskvi. NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul on his recent trip to Moscow held a civil society event on prison reform and met with Sergei Magnitsky’s mother and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, and with independent bloggers; I have had my own meetings with human rights groups in Moscow and in DC.

  • We also spend $33.6 million on funding for democracy promotion and civil society in Russia.
  • The Civil Society Working Group of the new Bilateral Presidential Commission is providing yet another avenue to pursue these issues with Russian counterparts.

There is, however, a deeper level at which the reset contributes to European security. A better, more stable, more constructive relationship between the United States and Russia is good not just for our two countries, but it is good for Europe as a whole. Contrast the tone of the relationship today with the period from 2006 to 2009. What we have seen is not a merely a change in tone and rhetoric, or just a good personal rapport between presidents. Russia recently agreed to settle a 40-year old border dispute with Norway, on terms that were unacceptable to Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In a hugely symbolic step, NATO troops marched in Moscow’s Victory Day parade. Russia has begun an outreach to Poland in the past few months that has already seen Vladimir Putin acknowledge the Katyn Massacre and kneel at a memorial to its victims. In the wake of the tragic plane crash that killed the Polish president and other dignitaries, Russian officials reacted promptly and cooperatively throughout the investigation.

All this demonstrates that the reset in relations cannot be understood as the mere result of a change in U.S. policy. It is just as much the result of a Russia that is willing to engage in pragmatic solutions to the problems we all face. As a leaked foreign policy document published recently in the Russian edition of Newsweek implied, the leaders in the Kremlin now believe that they need and can achieve good relations with both Europe and the United States. This makes sense when you look at Russian interests from a strategic perspective: in a complex and changing world, the principal threats to Russian security do not come from stable democracies in Central Europe.

There is still much more to do as we seek to advance our relationship with Russia – we seek to do more in terms of arms control, we have to deepen our economic relationship, we should work to get the Russians into the WTO, we want to cooperate on the development of missile defense, and we need to make progress on Georgia. Even with more progress, we do not expect that we will always agree with Russia – and when we do not, we will express that disagreement vigorously and we will unyieldingly defend our principles, our commitments, and our allies.

But this opportunity to take stock just as clearly demonstrates how far we’ve come. It is striking that favorable attitudes towards the United States in Russia have increased from 38 to 54 percent from January 2009 to January 2010. We have a number of concrete achievements brought about by U.S.-Russian engagement, we have continued to keep faith with our allies and our principles, and we have seen substantial progress in creating a more stable European security environment as a whole.

With that, I look forward to our discussion.

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