What It Will Take to Reset Relations Between the U.S. and Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a press conference after a meeting as part of the 30th EU-Russia summit at EU headquar
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a press conference after a meeting as part of the 30th EU-Russia summit at EU headquarters in Brussels on December 21, 2012. Putin went into talks with the EU in feisty form, tackling a lengthy agenda of contentious issues, including human rights, Syria and trade ties. AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

In order to set things right with Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry needs to make the bilateral relationship more of a priority than Hillary Clinton did. Given the ongoing chill between Moscow and Washington there needs to be a 'reset' of the 'reset' in relations that really never happened over the past four years. The Obama Administration may not wish to admit it, but the U.S. needs Russia in the geopolitical arena more than Russia needs the U.S. -- given the stakes at hand with Iran and Syria -- and it stands to gain much more than it would lose in the process.

In reviewing the events that led to the 'reset' collapse, the Obama Administration's belief that it could coax Mr. Putin into agreeing to new bilateral agreements for strategic cooperation and collective security turned out to be ill-advised and poorly timed. For Russia's leadership, the spectrum of debate has become increasingly narrow, having been overtly tainted with nationalist themes that have negatively impacted progress on enhancing collective security agreements. Nationalism is of course also alive and well in the U.S., enabling the far right in both countries to feed off each other.

Messrs. Obama and Putin both have fresh mandates and are experienced enough in the job to know what is in their own interest, and that of their nations. With Syria continuing to implode and a showdown with Iran looming, it is more important than ever that the U.S. and Russia find a way to work together in a meaningful manner for mutual benefit -- and that of the greater Middle East. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved while both Syria and Iran remain unresolved. The irony is that any meaningful progress on achieving a reset may only come after both have been more or less addressed, yet resetting relations now would help to achieve a favorable outcome in both cases.

If America hopes to 'reset the reset' with Russia, it will need to send more accommodating messages to Mr. Putin. While America must be true to itself and its values in opposing human rights violations, human rights should not be the 'centerpiece' of U.S. foreign policy with Russia. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was rightly repealed because it is a relic of a bygone era, but was then replaced by the Magnitsky Act. We are no longer living in the 1970s or fighting a battle between capitalism and communism around the globe. Today the battle is between states competing commercially. Particularly while the U.S. continues to find its economic footing, American lawmakers would be wise to keep that in mind.

Part of the problem here is an inability to think of Russia in non-Cold War terms. Some western governments and media outlets are having a hard time adjusting to what Russia has become. For example, Mr. Putin gets short shrift in the western media for having broken the backs of the Russian oligarchs, or for having promoted a range of economic and political reforms during his first tenure as president, which paved the way for its development over the past decade. There is also the view, perpetuated by the media, that Mr. Putin is an enemy of the U.S. and West. This fails to take into account some important 'footnotes,' such as that Mr. Putin wanted Russia to become a member of NATO a decade ago, but was brushed off repeatedly by NATO members, which never seriously considered Russia's application for membership. It was only after that refusal that Russia's tone toward the West changed.

Mr. Putin also gets little credit for not responding to the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or for being instrumental in ensuring U.S. access to Central Asian military bases when the U.S. first entered Afghanistan. Similarly, former president Medvedev was brushed off when he sought to enhance missile defense cooperation with the U.S. following approval of the New START treaty. Only then did his tone change. Russia has in fact reached out to the U.S. and the West repeatedly, without success. Mr. Putin can hardly be blamed for emphasizing the importance of strong military defense at a time when the U.S. and the West are doing exactly the same thing, yet he is criticized for doing so.

The West would be well advised to recognize that Mr. Putin has the strong backing of the majority of the Russian people, and he is here to stay, probably for a long time. Both the U.S. and Russia's challenge will be to reset relations to a more acceptable level based on the concept of mutual respect. Mr. Putin's challenge will be to transform his mandate into meaningful reform at home and engagement abroad. Messrs. Obama's and Kerry's challenge is to make a reset more of a priority. Both sides need to shake off the remnants of the Cold War and embrace the new normal. Similarly, the western press should stop taking an 'anything but Putin' approach to reporting events in Russia, which is not helpful.

Russia became a formal member of the WTO last year and assumed the presidency of the G20 this year. It is increasingly exerting its influence in various global fora and some of the world's most significant hot spots. It cannot be in its own long-term interest for the U.S. not to embrace Russia as a partner. Mr. Obama will soon miss another opportunity to do so by declining an invitation to visit Moscow this spring, opting instead to visit St. Petersburg for the G20 meeting in September. Mr. Kerry has chosen not to visit Russia during his first excursion as Secretary of State. These are not being received in Moscow as messages of conciliation. It will take more of an effort to reset the reset, which has unfortunately been transformed into a game of diplomatic brinksmanship.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk."