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What can be done to improve relations between the United States and Russia, given recent problems with the “reset”?

Question submitted by Brian Runyon, from United States, March 13, 2013

Answered by: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies


The current nasty atmosphere between Russia and the United States goes beyond one or two disputed issues and will be difficult to improve. There have been regular spikes of tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship for the last fifteen years, and they will likely continue.

President Obama attempted to "reset" relations with Russia in his first term after a particularly rocky period, but the effort to improve relations has faltered, with differences over Syria, American missile defense plans, restrictive measures passed by both the U.S. Congress and Russia's parliament, and other contentious issues.

Both sides have put some useful limits on the quarrelling, however. Moscow has not obstructed the Northern Distribution Network, through which the United States supports its military presence in Afghanistan. And Congress did not block full Russian accession to the World Trade Organization. Limited cooperation on North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs has continued.

The main driver of hostility to the United States is Russian domestic politics. Last year's crowds protesting the results of Russia's legislative elections have disappeared, but opposition to his rule still clearly worries Putin. Baiting the United States has proved politically popular in Russia.

With so many areas of disagreement, a "Grand Bargain"—some big package of trade-offs—will be difficult to accomplish. A single-issue deal on nuclear cuts or trade and investment is possible, but hard to achieve because of overall bad feeling. Most importantly: Putin will not take a different tack in dealing with the United States unless he is satisfied that it makes domestic political sense.