It is fitting that Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Moscow two years and one month from the day he first decried the “dangerous drift” in U.S.-Russia relations and suggested it was time to “press the reset button.” Both sides can be proud of what has been accomplished since that time: a new strategic arms control treaty and a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement have come into force, U.S. and Russian teams have fought side by side against the scourges of terrorism and drug trafficking, and a new Bilateral Presidential Commission facilitates daily interactions between working-level officials on nearly every issue of shared concern, from space cooperation to the Arctic environment.

But as in any relationship, the enthusiasm of the freshly renewed partnership will begin to face significant challenges as it matures. In the coming year, the “reset” will be tested by the expectation of continued concrete progress, including in areas like missile defense and “frozen conflicts” where disagreements may outweigh shared interests and zero-sum thinking may be hard to shake. The two governments have already forecast some important benchmarks for 2011—like bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO)—but there is little “low hanging fruit” left, and negotiations may still stumble over different views of corruption and the rule of law. Even if the top officials are resolved to overcome all obstacles, the inertia of bureaucracy and the distraction of an impending presidential election can delay progress until it is too late, aided by anemic people-to-people contacts and press coverage highlighting a significant values gap between the two sides.

Zero-Sum Security

With bilateral arms control between the world’s two leading nuclear powers back on track, both sides have turned to the next steps for security in the Euro-Atlantic region. While there is broad consensus that these must include some kind of cooperation on missile defense, an effort to restore the framework that limits conventional forces in Europe, and renewed attention to Transdniester—a protracted territorial conflict in the heart of Europe—Moscow and Washington do not see eye to eye on the details. 

Missile defense may be the hardest nut to crack, because at least for now, the capabilities U.S. and NATO leaders are resolved to develop and deploy are perceived as an unacceptable, even existential, threat by Russia. Ironically, the closer Iran comes to developing missile capabilities that can threaten Europe and the United States, the more Russia will also be threatened, and the more Moscow may be willing to accept NATO missile defense as an inevitable response. However, if the two sides cannot agree on a coordinated approach before the Iranian threat materializes, it may be too late afterward to implement the level of transparency and cooperation necessary to allay Russian fears.

When it comes to conventional forces in Europe, a stalemate more than a decade old persists: Washington will not agree to a new treaty constraining NATO’s conventional military superiority until Moscow fulfills its 1999 Istanbul commitments to withdraw forces from Moldova and Georgia, respecting the principle of “host nation consent.” Although there has been substantially increased attention to the conflict in Moldova from European capitals over the past year, the Transdniester leadership—and their supporters and business partners in Russia and Ukraine—remain staunchly opposed to any change in the territory’s de facto independence. Any discussion of conventional forces is also complicated by the increasingly entrenched dispute between Georgia and Abkhazia, where Russia’s new S-300 deployments and forty-nine-year basing agreement are perceived as provocations by Tiblisi and as an ongoing violation of “host nation consent” by the West.

As with missile defense, Washington expects Moscow to trust that its own far-flung deployments in Central Asia are intended solely to facilitate the Afghan counter-insurgency, a priority for preventing state failure and radical Islam throughout the region. Yet despite joint anti-trafficking operations in Afghanistan involving Russian forces and a newly ratified agreement on transit through Russia for NATO troops and supplies, there are still many Russians who see the U.S. presence in zero-sum terms. In February, the foreign ministry issued a statement implying that plans for a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan could be perceived as threatening by “neighboring countries.” And Russian commentators have been far blunter in describing the U.S. presence as an attempt to secure a foothold for political and economic dominance of the region.

Free Trade and Corruption

Russia has been seeking to join the WTO since 1993, and Washington and Moscow have been working together, on and off, to facilitate Russia’s entry into the 153-member trading bloc for that entire period. In the past few months, however, officials on both sides have expressed optimism that Russia will become a member of the WTO by the end of 2011. As importantly, for the first time it appears that Russia’s entry will enjoy the support of all current members—even Georgia, which is prepared to resolve its current and future trade disputes with Moscow within the WTO framework. And with U.S. leverage behind it, Russia may be able to achieve fast settlements with other states and international companies that have claims against Russia for trade disputes in the recent past.

Nonetheless, it is much too early to check off WTO accession as the next big accomplishment of the U.S.-Russia reset. First, Russia’s customs regulations and tariffs are not in compliance with WTO norms, and Moscow refuses to change them until it is actually a member. This chicken-and-egg conundrum could derail the accession process if either side chooses to stand its ground. Second, Russia’s new customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Moscow’s past insistence that all three states be included as a single bloc within the WTO, have raised serious concerns. If Russia enters the WTO without its two union partners, goods will undoubtedly be routed through Russia to avoid duties, and neither Minsk nor Astana will have any incentive to bring its rules into compliance with global norms.

Finally, if Russia is a WTO member, the United States will have to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and that may prove to be every bit as difficult as indicated by the fact that it has endured for over two decades since the elimination of all restrictions on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, which the law was designed to penalize. Today, Jackson-Vanik may serve as a rallying point for critics of Russia’s record on human rights more broadly, while provoking skepticism about the benefits of free trade with a country where corrupt customs officials can require huge bribes to permit the transit of goods, or simply make those goods disappear. And although the Republican-controlled House is mildly more favorable to free trade agreements than its predecessor, in the current economic climate, members of Congress may prefer to avoid entirely a topic that is traditionally associated with U.S. jobs moving overseas.

Bureaucratic and Political Inertia

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to continued bilateral progress between Moscow and Washington is the sheer inertia of bureaucracy and politics on both sides. Once the low-hanging fruit has been harvested, in the form of fundamentally and obviously shared security and economic interests, progress will depend on the ability of leaders to identify and define new common ground and to respect the political constraints under which each side operates domestically. Even if the two presidents are resolved to continue cooperation, there are substantial obstacles that lower-level officials may be unwilling or unable to remove.

For the past decade, the weakest link in the U.S.-Russia relationship has been the absence of strong people-to-people ties. Unlike U.S. relations with many other countries large and small, the relationship with Russia lacks a community of strong stakeholders who value family, business, or cultural ties with Russia. In fact, some powerful interest groups in Washington and in state capitals are more likely to take positions against warming ties with Russia. And despite the current positive rhetoric from the Kremlin, there is equally little widespread enthusiasm for engagement on the Russian side. The long-term solution to this problem is to reduce barriers to travel and exchange, especially by making the process for acquiring a tourist, student, or work visa simpler and less expensive, or even eliminating visa requirements altogether. Although EU member states have begun to discuss such measures with Moscow, visa reform remains almost invisible on the U.S.-Russia bilateral agenda.

Any next steps for U.S.-Russia cooperation will require the application of political will from both sides. Yet as the 2012 presidential election cycles begin over the coming year, it will be increasingly difficult for each side to muster the sustained attention required to generate that political will, as the risks and costs of bold diplomacy almost always appear to outweigh the benefits. This is especially the case when it comes to the U.S.-Russia relationship, because Russia appears far more often in the U.S. news media in a negative light than as a friend or partner of the United States. It will be extremely difficult for the president and congressional leaders to defend deepening trade ties, easing visa requirements, or enhancing intelligence sharing with Russia in the face of continuing reports of endemic corruption and abuse by government officials, racial and ethnic violence, and constraints on free speech and assembly.

Going Forward

The U.S.-Russia reset called for by Vice President Biden in a speech more than two years ago has succeeded in establishing an unprecedented level of pragmatic cooperation and engagement between Moscow and Washington. Less than a year before the reset, Russian and American forces had faced each other warily in the Black Sea, the two sides appeared headed for renewed nuclear competition, and there was little if any contact between working-level officials from the two governments on shared economic, scientific, or environmental interests.

The current momentum of bilateral cooperation certainly favors continued progress, especially on issues where U.S. and Russian interests are fundamentally shared—such as in expanding economic opportunity, and enhancing people-to-people ties between the two countries.  However, significant challenges also lie ahead. To achieve further concrete successes, both sides will have to show sensitivity and flexibility in recognizing each other’s political and security constraints, and think creatively to find possible common ground. Both sides should strive hard to avoid behavior that may be perceived as provocation or that foments negative media coverage, which can make cooperation more politically costly. Above all, Moscow and Washington should strive to achieve as much as possible in the next few months, since bold diplomacy is not likely during the run-up to both countries’ 2012 presidential elections.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in Russian in Vedomosti.