The latest flap over U.S. Russia policy sparked by the interview Vice President Biden gave to the Wall Street Journal last week demonstrates the fragility of the “reset” proclaimed after the Moscow summit between President Obama and President Medvedev in July. And it further underscores how vulnerable the effort to recast relations will remain so long as they depend more on words and symbols than on achieved and tangible results.

The Vice President’s trip to Ukraine and Georgia already focused attention on the topic that remains most neuralgic in relations between Moscow and Washington. However, despite criticizing Russia for the benefit of audiences in Kyiv and Tbilisi, Mr. Biden gave Moscow no real grounds to complain that the Administration was moving away from the positions President Obama laid out during his Moscow visit and since. But when the Wall Street Journal reported Biden remarking that Russian economic distress would give Washington a way to extract concessions from Moscow, the Russian reaction was as immediate as it was negative. One Russian news agency characterized the reaction as a “mixture of puzzlement, hurt, and warnings” quoting Medvedev foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko as saying that if “some members of Obama’s team and government …disagree with the policy of their own President, we ought to know it.” Others were less generous.

In the present environment, words alone will not get America’s relations with Moscow back on more solid ground; only concrete actions and demonstrable results will.

The reaction from Moscow resulted in immediate damage control. Statements from the White House and State Department sought to backtrack and deny any suggestion that the Administration was changing its carefully crafted new approach to Russia. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that the “President said in Moscow that the United States seeks a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia - one that will be an even more effective partner in meeting common challenges,” and that the “President and Vice President believe Russia will work with us not out of weakness but out of national interest.”

This was followed by a statement from Secretary of State Clinton reaffirming that the Administration wants “a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia,” and that the U.S. views Russia “as a great power.” But the effect of this contretemps is unfortunately all too predictable. It has given ammunition to Russian critics of better relations with Washington even as it has awakened doubts and debate in the U.S. about how firmly the Obama Administration is committed to resetting its approach. In the present environment, words alone will not get America’s relations with Moscow back on more solid ground; only concrete actions and demonstrable results will.

The agreement in Moscow that the U.S. and Russia will put the conduct of their future business on a more structured basis represents a major opportunity.

Both Washington and Moscow must move with determination and persistence to capitalize on new diplomatic openings produced at the July summit in Moscow. The need is all the more urgent as we approach the August political dead zone, when regular diplomatic activity gives way to desultory vacation-time routines. The short time negotiators have to complete a new strategic arms agreement to replace the expiring START treaty before December gives reason to expect that both sides will continue to press forward in that area. Most indications since the Moscow meeting remain positive and suggest progress is being made. One can only hope that the urgency of the subject will prompt both sides to work actively even through August to deliver results by the fall. 

Likewise, the agreement on Afghanistan and new opportunities for cooperation on that front need to be shown to work. That will require both parties to undertake activities that demonstrate the practical benefits from the new arrangements generated at the summit.  Similarly, the military to military program agreed in Moscow will create a new atmosphere of cooperation only with implementation of the projects outlined.  In addition to these concrete activities, however, it is the promise of expanded areas of cooperation that offers the best hopes of a new era in U.S. relations with Russia. 

In this regard, the agreement in Moscow that the U.S. and Russia will put the conduct of their future business on a more structured basis represents a major opportunity. The inability of the Bush and Putin presidencies to develop an apparatus to prosecute relations in a predictable and productive way worked to the detriment of both countries. Programs with potential for the U.S. and Russia were allowed to wither, and differences and disagreements were allowed to develop or fester in the absence of sustained dialogue.

Only if both our countries move boldly to deal with the issues can we expect the reset to produce the results we so urgently desire.

The creation of a bilateral commission led by presidents Obama and Medvedev has put in place new machinery designed to address this problem. This new commission will provide an institutionalized framework for the two governments to carry out routine work effectively and to prevent neglect of issues with the potential to cause trouble. As set out in their statements from Moscow, Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov will lead and coordinate the work of the commission’s working groups. Each structured to address a major element of U.S.-Russia relations, these working bodies will permit the governments to develop pragmatic, mutually beneficial programs, to deepen and broaden dialogue at both the expert and political levels, and to work toward better outcomes in addressing issues on the international agenda. They can further develop the useful habit -- that has so long been lacking -- of consultation and joint work. 

As designed, the commission can address nearly all aspects of U.S.-Russia relations. Its working groups will address security issues ranging from how to combat the dangers of terrorism and extremist movements to dealing with the challenges of energy security and energy efficiency. It should also be hoped that the appropriate working group will immediately take up the matter of managing Russia’s World Trade Organization membership, where it will find agreement at the political level, and experts eager to get started on implementation. If past examples serve, topics ranging from cooperation on public health and climate change to nuclear nonproliferation and missile defense will be most usefully addressed in a sustained structured dialogue within a solid institutional framework. 

With nearly a month having passed since the meeting in Moscow, both capitals must keep up the pressure for progress toward a strategic arms accord, and for at least some elements of the new commission to begin practical work.

The Obama-Medvedev meetings in Moscow carried a step further the efforts of the U.S. and Russia to move their relations in a more positive, productive direction. The first meeting of the two presidents in London last spring committed the partners to a new course, set priorities for the relationship and defined an ambitious and broad agenda reflecting the role the two nations play in the international arena. The Moscow summit moved the process of “resetting” further along by reaching some critically important agreements and setting up a framework for further work.

None of what the two presidents accomplished is, however, self-executing or self-implementing. If we are to take any lessons from previous chapters in the history of U.S.-Russia relations, it is the absolute requirement to give their conduct priority, structure, and above all consistent attention. With nearly a month having passed since the meeting in Moscow, both capitals must keep up the pressure for progress toward a strategic arms accord, and for at least some elements of the new commission to begin practical work. Only if both our countries move boldly to deal with the issues can we expect the reset to produce the results we so urgently desire.