Updated at 12:22 p.m. on Nov. 19.
When the Cold War was winding down, President Reagan loved to cite the Russian proverb "doveryai, no proveryai" (trust, but verify). It annoyed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who felt that his overtures were not being reciprocated unequivocally. Today, the U.S. finds itself in Gorbachev's position, struggling to convince Moscow of its good intentions.
As Iran draws closer to nuclear power and Afghanistan teeters on the brink of collapse, the U.S. needs Russian cooperation more than ever. But a year after President Obama's election and nine months after Hillary Rodham Clinton's partially fumbled attempt to "reset" relations with Moscow, Russian officials still aren't sure what to make of the new administration.
At this September's Valdai conference, an annual meeting of the minds for Russian policy wonks, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complained that despite White House talk of a reset, there has been no tangible progress, according to attendee Oksana Antonenko, program director for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"There's still a great deal of skepticism within the Russian political elites and government about what our motives and long-term plans are," said Thomas Graham, who served as senior director at the National Security Council for Russia from 2004 to 2007.
In July, Moscow promised to begin letting U.S. cargo planes fly troops and supplies through its airspace en route to Afghanistan. But bureaucratic delays have slowed the deal, and just one ceremonial flight has taken place thus far.
The administration bought some goodwill in Moscow in September by pulling the plug on missile shield plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the subsequent decision to deliver Patriot missiles to Poland, accompanied by American troops, quickly became exhibit A for Russian diplomats who believe the administration's approach to Russia is a case of new bottles for old wine.
The main hangups are differing expectations of what improved relations should look like and how to get there, argued Alexander Kliment, a Russia analyst at the Eurasia Group.
"The problem that they are running into is that both sides have different ideas of what a 'reset' means," Kliment said. "The prevailing view in the U.S. was that merely by resetting the tone of the relationship, progress could be made. For the Russians, I think, progress in U.S.-Russia relations will be based first on the U.S. rolling back a series of policy initiatives."
The U.S. is pressuring Russia to consider economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, but that would hurt Russian business. Exports to Iran amounted to $3.3 billion in 2008, up from $1.9 billion in 2005, according to the United Nations statistics division. Iran has also resisted supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Chechnya. Moscow will only lean on Tehran if it feels it is earning political capital with the U.S., argued Dimitri Simes, president of The Nixon Center.
"They feel that they are being asked to do something very difficult without being offered much in return," Simes said. "The administration is saying there should be no 'quid pro quo' because it's the right thing to do, and Moscow is saying, 'wait a minute, we're allowed to define our own national interests.'"
Part of the problem may be the administration's inconsistent messaging. At the center is Vice President Joe Biden, who has made three trips to Central and Eastern Europe this year, reassuring allies that warmer relations with Russia won't leave them in the cold. In the process, he's taken a few potshots at Moscow, saying the Russian economy was "withering" and arguing that their empire was in decline.
The vice president won himself goodwill in Central and Eastern Europe during his three-plus decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by supporting the expansion of NATO and encouraging American intervention during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The position he's staked out now, Simes argued, is to improve relations with Moscow without budging on any issues important to America's partners in the region.
Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, said as much in a conference call before the October trip to Poland and the Czech Republic, telling reporters, "We've been very clear from day one that we are seeking to improve relations with Russia, but not at the expense of any of our partners -- our partnerships."
Russian policymakers -- already disinclined to trust Obama's motives -- have latched onto these statements as proof of the White House's disingenuousness.
"[Biden] certainly was important in terms of getting Russian attention and increasing Russian skepticism that the reset means something," Simes argued.
"The dichotomy of attitudes towards Russia in the U.S. administration does not make things easy for us," said Igor Yurgens, an economic policy adviser to Medvedev, at a Nov. 5 lecture in London hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "It is a problem."
The Obama administration's low approval ratings in Russia aren't helping either. Only 23 percent of Russians believe Obama will "do the right thing in international affairs," according to a July poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Obama's election appears to have done little to boost American standing there either: 20 percent of Russians approved of U.S. leadership in a July Gallup poll, up just 6 percentage points from 2008. Those paltry approval ratings make it far more enticing for the government to score political points by playing hardball than to cooperate.
The NATO issue in particular is a sensitive one for Moscow. Russia believes that during negotiations over the reunification of Germany in 1990, American officials explicitly promised that NATO would not expand "one inch to the East." For their part, U.S. officials insist they never made any such promise, a point backed by Mark Kramer, a Cold War scholar, in a recent Washington Quarterly article.
But Mary Elise Sarotte, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California who has mined American, Russian, French, British, and German archives to get at the heart of the matter, said that while there was no legal commitment not to expand NATO, Soviet officials did receive an informal promise, hence the feelings of betrayal on the part of Russians today. Sarotte suggested that the Obama administration might acknowledge this fact as a way to improve its relationship with Russia.
Putting historical wrongs, real and perceived, to rest is especially important because there are issues where Washington's and Moscow's interests converge, none bigger than Afghanistan. Both countries are also negotiating a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which mandates cuts to nuclear stockpiles. The existing agreement expires Dec. 5.
Stabilizing Afghanistan is even more crucial. While Russia likes to see the U.S. in hot water, this is one case where it doesn't want the pot to boil over. Surging poppy production in Afghanistan feeds the heroin addiction that is tearing at Russian society, and drug trafficking in Central Asia threatens Russia's "soft underbelly," which it frets about constantly.
There may be even more at stake for Russia than the U.S. in Afghanistan, Yurgens believes. If the Taliban takes control, it threatens political stability in Central Asia and raises the specter of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, he said.
"Do you think," Yurgens added, "this is a birthday present for Russia?"
Artemy Kalinovsky is a fellow at the Centre for Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.