February 2, 2014 8:57 pm

Frosty points in post-cold war politics

In March 2009, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrived in Moscow with a gift for Sergei Lavrov, her Russian counterpart. To mark the Obama administration’s relaunch of US-Russian relations, wrapped in a gift box was a red button marked “Reset” in English and – it was intended – in Russian. With two crucial letters missed out, however, the word in Cyrillic actually meant “overload”. “You got it wrong,” remarked the urbane Mr Lavrov.

The anecdote could be a metaphor for the US and Russia’s often fumbled attempts to establish a more co-operative relationship since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The two countries no longer stare coldly across a deep ideological divide. So why, asks Angela Stent, an American academic and former national intelligence officer, has it been so hard for them to create a “productive post-cold war partnership”? Her compelling book provides perhaps the most comprehensive and sober – as well as sobering – assessment of relations across the past two decades.

It is a story of missteps, missed chances and miscommunications, of lingering cold war stereotypes, mutual suspicions and failures of “empathy”. It is also timely. As President Vladimir Putin prepares to host the $51bn Sochi Winter Olympics from later this week, the Obama “reset” has stalled. The two sides have traded barbs in recent months over Syria, Russia’s granting of asylum to the US whistleblower Edward Snowden and who provoked violent anti-government protests in Ukraine.

Yet there has been, the book argues, not one reset but four – initiated by George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, by Mr Putin after the September 11 2001 attacks and by Mr Obama. Each had some achievements. But each ultimately failed to deliver a more enduring partnership. All followed a similar arc, from optimistic expectations to disillusionment. The reasons are many and both sides share the blame.

One is that relations have depended excessively on personal chemistry between presidents – not least under Mr Clinton and Boris Yeltsin’s “Bill and Boris show” of the 1990s. That creates problems when presidents change or, like Mr Obama and Mr Putin, do not get on. The institutional framework, meanwhile, has been thin.

There has been a mismatch, too, in each side’s aspirations. Russia, especially under Mr Putin, has craved a relationship of equals, even if little beyond its nuclear arsenal qualified it. The US sees Russia as a “second-order priority”, but wants its help with the first-order priorities – nuclear non-proliferation, Iran and Afghanistan.

Linked to that is a cognitive dissonance in how the two sides view the same events. The US saw the 1990s as a time when Russia gained freedom and progressed towards market democracy. Russia saw it as a time of “chaos, poverty, weak leadership, and ruthless and opaque oligarchic capitalism”, and humiliation by the US.

But there have been specific problems in each capital. Ms Stent does not spare her own side from her criticism: for lack of joined-up thinking, bureaucratic shake-ups that left different parts of the apparatus dealing without co-ordination with different former Soviet states, and a Congress that lagged far behind the White House’s desire for better relations.

Washington has vacillated between a Russia policy focused on furthering US interest s and one based on projecting western “values”. But it failed to grasp the scale of the post-communist transition – a process Berlin once warned would take “70 years”.

Moscow, meanwhile, has seen any US gain as a Russian loss rather than a source of mutual benefits – and its mindset owes more to 19th-century “great power” politics than 21st-century diplomacy. Its focus on clawing back influence, on preventing the US becoming the sole global decision maker, has often made it seem a spoiler not a constructive partner.

So can the cycle of failed resets, of great expectations followed by disappointments, be broken? Stent shows sympathies with those who advocate a policy towards Russia based more on US interests than values, quoting the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “It is not our job to reorganise their society.”

America, she suggests, should have “moderate expectations”, define its priorities and pursue them consistently “without overemphasising Russia’s domestic trajectory”. That may chime with a shift in the US popular mood to a less interventionist foreign policy. It may be a less welcome message for beleaguered pro-democracy activists in Russia who, after protests flared surrounding Mr Putin’s return for a third presidential term last year, have found themselves in a distinctly more frosty environment.

The writer is the FT’s east Europe editor

‘The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century’ By Angela Stent, Princeton £24.99/$35

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