Renouncing the Reset: U.S.-Russia Relations under President Biden

Much like Middle East peace, improving U.S.-Russia relations has been an elusive goal of presidential diplomacy for decades. President Bush spoke warmly of the trust between himself and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2001, President Obama memorably sought a “reset” with Russia in 2009, and the election of President Trump in 2016 engendered hopes of a Russo-American “grand bargain.” Yet for all three presidents, dawning rapprochement darkened quickly into tension and conflict. President Biden inherits this legacy of dashed expectations; accordingly, his first conversation with Putin on January 26 was not an overture of friendship, but the opening skirmish in what will likely be a difficult partnership.   

While Biden and Putin agreed to extend the expiring New START Treaty, their conversation disclosed wide areas of friction in U.S.-Russia relations. These range from the August poisoning of Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny (whose recent jailing provoked widespread protests in Russia), to Russia’s hack of over 18,000 American networks, to the charges that Russia placed bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan and interfered in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. This litany of disputes comes against a backdrop of Russo-American hostility in Europe, with the crisis in Ukraine as its most serious flashpoint. Whether and how such tensions subside is unclear. What seems certain is that Biden, disabused by his predecessors’ frustrations, will approach U.S.-Russia relations as a rivalry to be managed, not a friendship waiting to take root.

Questions and Background

  • After the Cold War, why did U.S. policymakers believe that a cooperative relationship with Russia was both likely and necessary? What changed? 
  • Will the recent civil unrest in Belarus and wave of protests within Russia contribute to a more aggressive or restrained Russian foreign policy?  
  • What issues should the U.S. prioritize in its relationship with Russia? For instance, can the U.S. both pursue strategic arms stability and advocate for human rights in Russia?

Putin vs. Navalny: Can Russia’s Protesters Prevail?
Sebastian Sestanovich. Council on Foreign Relations. January 25, 2021.

How to Contain Putin’s Russia
Michael McFaul. Foreign Affairs. January 19, 2021.

A Conservative Foreign Policy for the Future
AHS’s Danielle Pletka. Foreign Policy. January 15, 2021.

A Tale of Two Europes
AHS’s Gary Schmitt. The Hill. December 23, 2020.

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