Obama put the ball in the Russians' court, but can they shoot?

By Eurasia Group analyst Alexander Kliment

The Obama administration's decision last Thursday to radically rework Washington's missile defense plans may have had more to do with reassuring Tel Aviv than placating Moscow. But when it comes to resetting U.S.-Russia ties, the move placed the ball squarely in the Kremlin's court.

One of the key goals of the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia has been to enlist Russian support for more robust multilateral sanctions against Iran. In recent years, the Bush administration's missile defense plan emerged as a key irritant in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russian elites saw it as further evidence of a sinister Western plot of encirclement and feared, despite U.S. assurances, that the missile defense system could eventually be used against Russia's nuclear arsenal. In recent months, top Russian officials, including both Putin and Medvedev, have called on Washington to augment the reset rhetoric with concrete action. With its announcement on missile defense this month, Washington did just that.

In Moscow, the news was appreciated -- though perhaps with a somewhat inflated sense of the Russian dimension in Obama's thinking on the question -- but Russia's top generals are already screaming again about the unacceptability of any missile defense plan that does not explicitly include Russian participation. On Iran, Russia will likely show support during the engagement phase of U.S. and EU diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, but any Kremlin backing for harsher sanctions would reflect a significant, and very unlikely, change of heart. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly said, flatly, that Russia opposes harsher sanctions against Iran. 

Russia is unlikely to respond to the missile defense shift with any grand gesture as part of a "reset." The problem goes beyond missile defense -- Russia and the United States have fundamentally different views of what a reset means. For Washington, improved ties with Moscow are a foundation on which each country can work to accommodate the other's goal. In particular, Washington would like to see some flexibility in Moscow's position on key disputed issues: NATO expansion, Eurasian energy politics, and, crucially, Iran.

But the Russian elite, for its part, is divided. While some members of the liberal camp view Washington's overtures with cautious optimism, Putin and other important figures in the defense and military establishments see U.S. acceptance of Russia's position on these issues as a prerequisite for "hitting the reset button." In other words, Moscow thinks that a reset means Washington will reverse or change policies that the Kremlin considers antagonistic to Russia's interests. At the same time, Putin has made it clear that any moves by the United States to reverse perceived slights against Russia should not carry an expectation of reciprocity. The danger, then, is that Russia will simply view Washington's decision on missile defense as a welcome step, but not one that requires any similar moves by Russia. If Russia chooses to respond this way, any chance of a lasting reset will grind to a swift halt.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Moscow earlier this year to begin work on a reset in relations, the occasion was largely overshadowed by the translation gaffe in which the "reset" button she presented to Lavrov actually carried the Russian word for "overload." But the risk that Washington now faces in its Russia policy is not that the Kremlin will be "overloaded," but that its actions will, in fact, be underwhelming.