After two years of close cooperation the U.S.-Russia reset can boast impressive accomplishments in the security and economic spheres. But the stability of the relationship remains in doubt as long as the “values gap” between the two strategic partners goes unaddressed. Carnegie’s Matthew Rojansky, David Kramer of the Freedom House, and Daniel Russell of the State Department discussed the challenges and opportunities for the Obama administration as it seeks to build and cement a permanent and constructive relationship with Russia. Carnegie’s Ambassador James F. Collins moderated.

Accomplishments and Challenges

Since the “reset” emerged as a top item on President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, the relationship with Russia acquired new dimensions: historically successful U.S.-Russia cooperation on security issues gave way to a broader, more multifaceted partnership on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to agriculture and sports. As the scope of cooperation widens further, the greatest source of tension between Moscow and Washington—the state of Russia’s domestic political situation and the lack of progress in the democratic sphere—remains unresolved. Building a mechanism to effectively address this “values gap” is critical for the bilateral relationship to move forward, said Collins.

Two Models of Reset: Linkage vs. Compartmentalization

Critics of the reset suggest two different approaches to bridge the values gap. Some observers call for stronger linkage between progress in U.S.-Russia cooperation and Russia’s domestic situation, while others emphasize separating the two issues. Ultimately, both approaches fail to provide a balanced mechanism to sustain the engagement, suggested Rojansky.

  • “Linkage” Approach: The “linkage” approach championed by some critics of Obama’s Russia policy stresses the importance of conditionality to hold Russia accountable for its domestic political situation. According to Rojansky, this philosophy is flawed for three reasons:

    1. Exaggerated assumptions: Linkage falsely assumes that the U.S. administration exercises sufficient leverage to coerce Russian leaders to act against their own interests in return for benefits derived from Moscow’s  engagement with Washington. This approach may prove especially counterproductive should Russia perceive U.S. demands for greater democracy as a threat to its core values and choose to walk away from the negotiating table.
    2. Inconsistency: Linkage policy can be effective only if it is applied consistently. Historically, however, security and economic interests outweighed values priorities, asserted Rojansky and Kramer.
    3. Losing the leverage: Holding cooperation on U.S.-Russia shared strategic interests hostage to values differences is counterproductive because it destroys the very relationships to which it seeks to apply leverage, said Rojansky.

  • “Compartmentalization” Approach: Proponents of this policy call for eliminating the nexus between Russia’s domestic political climate and U.S.-Russian cooperation on concrete issues of shared interest by engaging with the government on security and economic issues, while cooperating with civil society directly on issues related to democracy and human rights. Providing assistance to Russian civil society activists without engaging in a dialogue on the values gap at a state level would only be marginally help and could even potentially harm both U.S. foreign policy interests and the Russian society, warned Rojansky. He said that compartmentalization:

    1. Cultivates dependency: Such engagement policy runs the risk of making Russian civil society vulnerable and dependent on external assistance.
    2. Conveys a misleading message: An artificial segregation of cooperation on issues of common interest and the need for political reform in Russia may falsely lead Russia to think that for Washington democratic values are not an important dimension of its Russia agenda.
    3. Increases uncertainty: The absence of a government-to-government engagement on issues of democracy and human rights makes the relationship vulnerable to a conflict that may arise from values differences and derail the relationship as a whole. 

What Should be Done?

  • Dual-Track: The dual track approach favors U.S. cooperation with the Kremlin on a range of concrete policy issues, concurrent with engagement with civil-society to effect democratic change from within, said Russell.
  • Three-legged stool: Kramer objected to the notion of a dual track approach, maintaining that such a policy relegates the issue of human rights to the background. Instead, he proposed a “three-legged stool” model, where the value of each “leg”—national security, economics, and human rights—should not be compromised at the expense of  other “legs.” Kramer urged the administration to adopt a more aggressive policy toward Russia to protect the integrity of this model. Such an approach could include denying Russian leaders who engage in gross human rights violations the privilege of visiting and studying in the United States, he suggested.
  • Focus on a narrow set of values: While Washington should not neglect the importance of values in U.S. foreign policy, the Obama administration should refrain from framing the discourse on values in purely abstract terms. Instead, the administration must identify a narrow set of democratic values and demonstrate its linkage to concrete American interests, argued Rojansky. He listed three potential ways the administration can promote these concrete interests:

    1.  International Institutions: Historically, membership in international institutions was one of the most effective tools to encourage Russia to comply with international norms on human rights and democracy. Moscow’s desire to modernize and become a full-fledged member of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and the World Trade Organization gives the United States an opportunity to remind Russia of its obligations not just to Washington, but to the entire international community.
    2. Protecting Citizens’ Interests: The United States can use its legitimate right to protect its citizens and their property from abusive practices by the Russian government as a way to remind Moscow of the need to enforce the rule of law in its business sector. Focusing on the effect the lack of democratic practices have on concrete interests of U.S. citizens engaged with Russia would enable Washington to convey its message to Moscow more effectively.
    3. Public Opinion: Washington should point out to Moscow that the American people disapprove of its violations of human rights and democratic principles. Given the critical role public opinion plays in determining U.S. foreign policy, this hostility and skepticism could limit the ability of the administration to cooperate with Russia in the future.