The response from the Obama administration was also immediate. In an effort at damage control, the White House and State Department denied any suggestion that the administration was changing its carefully crafted approach toward Russia, even as spokesmen for the administration reaffirmed U.S. principles about the independence of Russia’s neighbors. But the incident has demonstrated once again how easily U.S.-Russian relations can be derailed or diverted and how vulnerable they will remain until a firmer base is built for better ties.
Fortunately, the Moscow summit provided the road map to move bilateral relations forward. As Obama and Medvedev agreed in Moscow in early July, the United States and Russia will conduct their future business on a more structured basis. As past examples show, topics on our agenda — including cooperation on public health and climate change, the future of Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation and missile defense — are most usefully addressed in a sustained dialogue within a solid institutional framework.
The inability of the Bush and Putin administrations to develop an apparatus to conduct relations in a productive and predictable manner worked to the detriment of both countries. It meant that disagreements festered and potential opportunities for a new U.S.-Russian partnership withered in the absence of sustained dialogue.
The creation of a bilateral commission led by Obama and Medvedev has given the impetus for new machinery to address this problem. The commission will provide a framework for the two governments to carry out routine work effectively and prevent neglect of issues with the potential to cause trouble. As set out in their statements from Moscow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov will lead and coordinate the work of the commission’s working groups. Each of the groups is structured to address a major element of U.S.-Russian relations and will permit the governments to develop pragmatic, mutually beneficial programs to deepen and broaden dialogue at both the analytical and political levels. They can further develop mechanisms for ongoing consultation and cooperation — something that has been absent for so long.
The flare-up over Biden’s remarks last week further underscores how far we have to go to realize the reset in relations agreed by the leaders of Russia and the United States.
Both Washington and Moscow must move with determination and persistence to capitalize on the new diplomatic openings produced at the summit, but none of these projects will be self-implementing. Negotiators have little time to complete a new strategic arms agreement to replace START before its expiration in early December, but indications suggest that they are advancing in their work. One can only hope that the urgency will prompt both sides to work actively even through August to deliver results. Similarly, the agreements include extended cooperation on Afghanistan and enhanced military exchanges, something that is highly valued in both capitals.
But arms reduction and control and this limited security agenda are not enough. If we learn anything from previous chapters in the history of U.S.-Russia relations, it is the requirement to give their conduct priority, structure and above all consistent attention. With nearly a month having passed since the summit, both capitals must keep up the pressure for elements of the new presidential commission to begin practical work. Only if both our countries move boldly to deal with the issues the commission is meant to address can we expect the reset to produce the results we so urgently desire.
As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted, “The president and vice president believe Russia will work with us not out of weakness but out of national interest.” If both countries can proceed on that basis, there is a high likelihood that we can move beyond relations based on words and symbols to a more stable relationship based on concrete cooperation and tangible results.
James F. Collins, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, is director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.