Reconsidering “Reset”: Engaging with Russia during the Obama Administration

Copyright U.S. Embassy Moldova

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Yale Journal of International Affairs: Your time as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow coincided with the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. To start, I thought we could talk about what you would consider as the major accomplishments of that reset period.

Eric Rubin: It came after the war between Russia and Georgia, which was a low point in U.S.-Russian relations. I’d have to say, not as low as the current one, but at the time, a serious low point. At a time of great tension between the U.S. and Europe, by the end of the Bush administration, the relationship was not going well. Tom Graham could tell you about that because he was actually at the White House in charge of advising the President on Russia at the end of the Bush administration.

President Obama came into office with, I think, a determination to do better, a belief, as he described in his vision of a new foreign policy for the United States, that we don’t want to be the cowboy going it alone, that actually the world is too complex, and problems are too challenging for us to solve, and that the American people also did not want the burden of solving all the world’s problems. They wanted it to be shared, and that having multiple partners, coalitions, and allies actually gives you much more strength, and is much more effective. He basically felt this had to be improved. He set out through, I’d say, a series of meetings with Russian leadership, through some speeches, through a visit—I was there when the President came for the first time in 2009 with the First Lady and the family—and set out to say, “Let’s see what we can do.”

One of the first things that he did with President Medvedev was to set up the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which was a way to, first of all, capture all of the things that we were doing together, but in a way that showcased them as examples of things that could lead to future progress. But also, then, to try to incentivize greater cooperation in new areas by saying, “the two presidents are behind this.” Understanding that in both of our bureaucracies, you need some push from the top. People are not going to go out on a limb and do new—and potentially complicated—things, certainly in either direction, unless they know there is a blessing. They set out to do that, and actually, I would say the first few years were generally very successful. A lot of people-to-people programs, many of which, unfortunately, have fallen by the wayside or been shut down in the past year.

And trying to do some interesting things. For example, in the Arctic, setting up a bi-national national park in Beringia, bridging between Alaska and Siberia, which was fascinating, and actually very exciting. Also, on things that we were working on already, but this gave a big push to…on non-proliferation, on dealing with global extremism, on natural disasters; we developed a very valuable and extensive cooperation between the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry and FEMA, which was shepherded by USAID, and in the summer of 2010, when they had the terrible fires and heat wave in Russia, FEMA worked to assist the Russians because we have extensive experience with wildfires in the United States, unfortunately.

There was a very strong, and frequent, and direct presidential relationship with President Medvedev. I think the two leaders actually had a personal chemistry that … it is always controversial whether a personal chemistry is essential or overblown, and I think it is all of the above. It is important, but it is not the only thing. In this case, though, I think it was very good. More importantly, the Medvedev project was to modernize Russia, to globalize Russia, to link it up with the world, to test the proposition that Russia could change, and reform, and open itself up and cooperate with other countries. I think there were great successes in that. That is one of the reasons, I think, that we are genuinely disappointed that so much of that has been reversed or shut down. I think that was a moment. I don’t want to over-personalize because when Medvedev was president, Putin was prime minister, and very much influential, so obviously this had Putin’s blessing. I don’t like the narrative that this was Medvedev versus Putin, or that we chose Medvedev. No, Medvedev was the president, that was not our decision, and it worked, at the time. It also gave us the chance to expand the dialogue to other areas where we needed to, including dealing with some of the global threats. I feel good about it, but I feel sad about it, frankly, because we have lost so much ground in the past two years, but it has accelerated in the past year of crisis over Ukraine.

YJIA: This past weekend was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I am sure you have heard, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stated that the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. In light of the events in Ukraine, do you think this is an accurate description of the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship? If you disagree with that statement, how would you characterize the current and near-future state of the Russian relationship?

Rubin: Let me start out by saying that I deeply admire President Gorbachev. I have had the privilege of meeting him on three separate occasions, one of them one-on-one. I think he is truly a world historical figure. I think he changed the world for the better in so many ways. I think he was certainly trying to change his country for the better, and I think he did; I think history will say that the changes that happened, while painful, ultimately were better for his countrymen, but that is a very controversial argument, certainly in Russia today, where that is a very difficult debate, so I do not want to take sides and enter Russian debates. I do want to say that I do respect his opinion enormously, and he has earned that respect.

That said, I would have to disagree with that statement. I think most of my colleagues, and certainly, our President and Secretary of State and other leaders do not agree. “New Cold War” is a scary term, and the Cold War was a scary thing. It was a nuclear standoff, it was mutually assured destruction, it was proxy wars all over the world, in which tens of thousands of our soldiers died. If you say “new Cold War,” you are sort of saying we are going back to that. We can’t go back to that. That’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for Russia, either.

Second of all, Russia is not the Soviet Union. We are not equally matched. Russia has enormous resources and military power and influence and geography, so Russia is a big, important country to be reckoned with, but this is not the Cold War. Despite some of the efforts by some of the Russian leadership to create ideological clash, there is really not a genuine ideological moment here. No one really has a better idea. The Soviet Union insisted that everything in our way of life, and our way of running an economy was wrong, and that they had a better system and a better idea. It turned out not to meet the test of history, but there was a genuine ideological split there. No one in Russia really has a better idea about how to run an economy, or how to do global trade, or any of these things. This is not an ideological dispute. We should be careful not to get into heated rhetoric, even in the difficulty of the moment, because that can feed upon itself. I think it is very important to say that it is not in anybody’s interest to have this escalate. Terms like “new Cold War” are escalatory. It needs to de-escalate—in practical terms, to end the violence, and get Ukraine and Russia on the road to peaceful, normal relations. It needs to de-escalate for the U.S.-Russia relationship as well, so that we can get back to cooperating.

YJIA: In the figure of Putin, and in modern Russia more generally, some people see a rise of Russian nationalism. I think it is embodied in both an ethnic Russian nationalism, which is one issue, and there is also this expansionist desire. Is this a concern in U.S. government policy circles?

Rubin: It is a very key theme, or set of themes, in Russian history, and it has never been totally coherent. Distinguishing between ethnic Russian nationalism and Russian imperial nationalism is necessary; it’s essential actually. It has been throughout Russian history, but the boundaries have never been exact. Were the tsars Russian nationalists, or were they Russian imperialists? They were both. I think what we have seen mostly, in terms of Putin’s emphasis during his time in office has been on Russia as a multiethnic federation that plays an important role in the world, with very little emphasis on ethnic Russian themes. Some of that has crept in over the past year, during this crisis. In a very multinational federation with many very large minority populations that are growing because of birthrate, I think emphasizing the multiethnic harmony theme is very important, and emphasizing the role of one group over another is potentially dangerous.

YJIA: Are there any bright spots in the U.S.-Russian relationship?

Rubin: A few. We are continuing to be able to work together constructively and productively for the benefit of our citizens and the entire planet on issues like the Arctic. The future of the Artic is huge—from the environment, to climate change, to shipping lanes, to demilitarization—all the things that we are going to have to look at, and that is an example of one of many areas. There are still many issues where we can still sit down with our Russian colleagues, on issues that don’t pertain to U.S.-Russia relations, and work well together. The fact that it continues in some areas is cause for hope. It is essential. By no means do I think that this is good enough, or we can let it rest here, but at the same time I have to end by saying, there are not a lot of bright spots. This is a bleak and depressing moment for those of us who are committed to the U.S.-Russian relationship being better.

YJIA: I would like to switch gears to discuss the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Regarding the energy implications of a renewed crisis, do the U.S. and the OSCE Minsk Group see a path forward that manages the risk of reduced oil exports from the region?

Rubin: We don’t have a path forward at the moment. We have been trying to get agreement on one. The status quo is unacceptable—that is a cliché, but it is absolutely true. We have tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, two countries with very extensive, sophisticated weapons systems pointed at each other, and we have hundreds of miles of barbed-wire fenced trenches, World War I style, where snipers peer at each other across the trenches and try to pick each other off. That is not okay. That is not an acceptable situation. The urgency of finding a solution is real, and we are committed to it. We work with the two other co-chairs, Russia and France (we have three co-chairs in the OSCE Minsk Group). We lead the process, working with the two presidents and the two foreign ministers, but it has been more than two decades, so I can’t tell you that we found the magic formula. Part of the problem in a conflict like this, and this is true of most of these protracted conflicts, there is a formula; everyone knows what it is. The question is, is everyone ready to implement it? In the case of this conflict, everyone knows that the formula is applying all of the Helsinki principles, which include non-use of force, territorial integrity, and self-determination together, in a way that meets everyone’s bottom-line objectives. That is really hard. We are certainly not there yet; I am not predicting any timeline. This is an example of the kind of thing that is so important that we can’t stop trying.

YJIA: What book are you reading right now?

Rubin: I am reading a couple of books right now—a couple of fun things and couple of serious things. The fun things: I am re-reading Report from Practically Nowhere by John Sack, which is a book that first captured my interest in travel in the world when I was a little kid—probably about nine years old, when I found it on my parents’ bookshelf. It is a travelogue of visits to all of the world’s microstates in 1959. Re-reading it to see, for example, what Dubai was like in 1959 and what the emir’s plans were for Dubai in 1959 is fascinating.

I have been re-reading Orest Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History, which is still the book if you want to understand the place. I am not the only one who did that; several of my colleagues have done that this year, as we are dealing with these things that we never thought that we would see. We are trying to remember why Ukraine exists, and how it came into being, and what the themes and conflicts have been over the years.

Two other books that are on my night table are Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms (a biography of Nelson Rockefeller), and John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan.

YJIA: What gives you hope for the future?

Rubin: One of the things that has been really positive for me in this job has been to travel a lot in areas of the former Soviet Union, many of which I had traveled to and worked in during the late 80s, early 90s and mid-90s. Some of which I had not been back to; that includes the Caucasus. Despite lots of problems and conflicts and sometimes very depressing situations, like we have had in eastern Ukraine, there has been real change. It is a total cliché, but the young people are different. They really, truly are. They are not all the same. They are different in many different ways, but they are different. They are not Homo Soveticus, as it was called during the Soviet period. They are exposed to the world. They speak English at a level and to an extent that, at times, is really startling, especially in some of the smaller countries, but also in Kiev and in other places where the teaching of English isn’t perfect, but it has become the standard curriculum in most of the schools in these countries. When you go to a place like Georgia, it is the second national language now—not Russian—to the point where sometimes you think they should bring back a little more Russian instruction because they live in that neighborhood, and their kids need to know Russian.

Also, in terms of attitudes. When you see what exposure to the world can do, this is what gives me hope with the EU Association Agreement. Moldova already has visa-free access to Schengen, and Georgia should have it by the middle of next year. Already, three hundred thousand Moldovans, a significant portion of them young, have traveled to the EU, and come back. Those kinds of experiences—and when you add work experiences and study experiences—it opens up the world. The new foreign minister of Georgia is a graduate (Master’s) from Indiana University, a Muskie Fellow. I feel so strongly that we should keep funding those kinds of programs.

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