Can the 'reset' between Washington and Moscow survive Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency in May? That is a question I posed to many people on a recent trip to Moscow. Opinions differed, but some of the best-informed analysts and officials expected the reset to fade away.
Vice-President Joe Biden first used the term at the Munich Security Conference in February 2009, when he said that it was time to press the reset button in the US-Russia relationship. Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, both recently elected as presidents of their respective countries, took up the challenge, and the climate between Moscow and Washington improved.
The reset brought considerable benefits to both sides. Moscow obtained an agreement on co-operation on civil nuclear power technology, help with its WTO membership application and an implicit understanding that the US would not directly challenge Russia's key interests in its own backyard (for example, in Ukraine). The US benefited from Moscow allowing men and supplies for the NATO mission in Afghanistan to pass through Russia. Moscow refused to deliver S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran and in June 2010 agreed to more UN Security Council sanctions against that country. Both parties were happy to sign the New Start agreement that will reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals.
The warm personal chemistry between Medvedev and Obama contributed to the reset's success. For example, their interventions sorted out some of the difficulties in the negotiation of the New Start agreement. And in March 2011, Medvedev's decision not to veto UNSC Resolution 1973 - a decision opposed by Putin and much of the Russian security establishment - gave the US and its allies legal cover to intervene militarily in Libya.
Prime Minister Putin, who has remained the pre-eminent figure in Moscow during the Medvedev presidency, never used the word but allowed the reset to happen. The prospects for its continuation, however, look bleak. Putin has a less benign view of the US than Medvedev. During the recent presidential election campaign, Putin resorted to tough anti-American rhetoric, accusing opposition demonstrators of being paid by the US. He wrote an essay on Russian foreign policy, published in February in Moskovskie Novosti, which accused the US of promoting human rights and supporting humanitarian interventions simply to advance its own commercial and geopolitical interests. Those who have heard him talk in private say that Putin's suspicion and mistrust of the US is genuine, rather than mere electoral rhetoric.
Arguments over human rights are likely to cause further strains in the relationship. Within Russia, NGOs funded by Western foundations or governments are facing new forms of harassment. The appointment of Mike McFaul - a longstanding advocate of democracy-promotion - as ambassador in Moscow has fuelled suspicions of US intentions. McFaul has been vilified in the Russian media for meeting representatives of NGOs. All this is likely to lead to more American criticism of Russia, fuelling more paranoia about Western plans to undermine Putin's regime, and so on.
Another thorny issue is missile defense. Much of the Russian security establishment appears to believe that America's plans for missile defense are aimed at Russia - though in Washington those working on missile defense say that Iran is the rationale (a handful of American thinkers also see China as a reason for investing in missile defense). Russian strategists are attached to the concept of 'mutually-assured destruction' and worry that American missile defense would necessitate a rethinking of that Cold War principle. Medvedev has threatened to respond to the US systems by deploying cruise missiles to Kaliningrad and building Russian missile defense systems.
However, some senior Russians do not view American plans for missile defense as a threat, at least until the early 2020s, when the US says it will deploy more sophisticated interceptors. But even then, some of these Russians acknowledge, the number of interceptors that the US intends to deploy could not significantly stymie Russia's ability to rain nuclear missiles on the US. According to these Russians, the loud barks from the security establishment are an attempt to set red lines and warn the Americans that they should take Russia's interests into account as they develop their system.