Transatlantic Take

Why Another “Reset” With Russia Won’t Change Reality

January 21, 2015
4 min read
Photo Credit: Tunasalmon /

WASHINGTON – Last September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a “Reset 2.0” between Russia and the United States. While criticizing the United States and NATO for returning to Cold War habits, he portrayed Russia as striving for normal relations and pursuing peace in Eastern Ukraine. And while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has since suggested that any “reset” would be impossible, some in Europe and the United States remain eager for a new détente in hopes of altering Russia’s behavior and averting further conflict.

However, this optimism about Russia should be questioned. Even now, Moscow further solidifies its grip on Crimea, destabilizes the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, intimidates the Baltic States, encroaches on Scandinavian air space, and adopts a dangerous posture on intermediate-range nuclear weapons. These developments signal that Russia is yet to embark upon any path to de-escalation. Rather than a reset, the United States and Europe must think about sustainable action and acceptable mid- and long-term outcomes in dealing with a Russia that is not shying away from conflict.

The transatlantic response to Russian aggression suffers from a lack of options that can facilitate an ultimately desirable outcome. This is in part due to the nature of decision-making processes and varied interests in Europe. While some claim success with the current sanctions-focused response, which — accompanied by the huge drop in oil prices — has wreaked havoc on the Russian economy, there seems to be little consensus on how long the sanctions should last or even what their end-goal was in the first place.

If sanctions are in place to change the behavior of President Vladimir Putin’s regime vis-à-vis Ukraine, should they be lifted when Russia no longer has a military presence in the Donbas, or only once Crimea is returned to Ukraine? The last scenario is highly unlikely and means that the transatlantic partners must be prepared to maintain sanctions for the foreseeable future. However, if the sanctions were meant only to punish the Putin regime, when will the transatlantic partners believe that he has understood the message? The lack of certainty behind the West’s sanctions strategy could mean that the will of key European allies may diminish if the cost of maintaining sanctions grows too large. The Kremlin is already doing its best to exploit European and transatlantic divisions, a practice in which it is skilled and experienced.

In formulating a strategy, it is important to recognize the Kremlin’s overarching narrative. Even as it criticizes the United States and Europe for their alleged Cold War relapse, Russia applies its anachronistic claims to the post-Soviet region. Moscow sees the post-Soviet states as being within its realm of exclusive influence, and is willing to destabilize the region to impede strategic cooperation with Europe and the United States. It is therefore naïve, and possibly dangerous, to hope that Russian and Western interests will align under the current regime in Moscow.

For the transatlantic partners, it is worth pointing out that Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia are as much a part of Europe’s neighborhood as they are Russia’s. Rather than legitimizing Putin’s claim of a privileged sphere of influence, the transatlantic community should resolutely support the ability of post-Soviet countries to still determine their own, independent paths. And while Europe and the United States certainly exercise influence in the region, they use the power of attraction, security cooperation, trade preferences, visa regimes, and tools that do not force the hand of post-Soviet partners. These tools are categorically different from the coercive and illegitimate military means employed by Russia. Arguments equating the two are profoundly flawed.

While a fundamental change in the relationship with Russia should be the long-term goal, the transatlantic partners must be cautious of another reset with Russia in the near-term. By all accounts, it is difficult to believe that Russia will completely withdraw from the Donbas in the near-term, let alone return Crimea to Ukraine. A zero-sum mentality pervades, and suggests that Russia is prepared to continue its long-term plan of destabilizing its neighbors. The frozen conflicts of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia serve as poignant examples. The transatlantic partners should formulate policies to ensure that another Crimea does not happen. Moreover, they should craft a strategy that deals with the possibility of a long-term confrontation with Russia. This should be comprehensive — encompassing political, economic, and security levers — while providing mechanisms for tiered de-escalation, dialogue, and resolution. Such a strategy could enable Europe and the United States to prepare for the day that Russia is willing to truly reset its relationship with that transatlantic community.