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Issue brief: Russia

The Electoral Issue:

Russia, America's Cold War-era superpower rival, retains a significant degree of global clout, alternately facilitating and frustrating American goals.

The Challenge:

To manage the relationship with Russia in order to win cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, and Syria while staking out clear opposition to Russia's policies on human rights, democratic opposition, missile defense, and other areas.


Democracy & Human Rights

Russian democracy in the 21st century wavers somewhere between questionable and farcical, creating a diplomatic problem for an America that prizes "free and fair elections."

In 2008, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin swapped jobs with his Prime Minister and protege Dmitry Medvedev after completing two consecutive terms as President. Medvedev served one term, and in 2012, the revolving door turned again, with Putin reclaiming the presidency and Medvedev returning to the Prime Minister's office. The 2012 election that reinstalled Putin in the presidency was marked by widespread reports of election fraud, prompting Putin's critics to accuse him of rigging the result.

Russia's lack of credible democracy is complemented by a problematic record on human rights. Critics point to a troubling pattern of political dissidents and Putin antagonists being muzzled, imprisoned, or simply disappearing. In 2003, Russian oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a well-known financier of opposition parties, was indicted for economic crimes, tried and imprisoned for 14 years. In 2010 he was convicted again on charges of money laundering and theft, and sentenced to 6 more years of prison.

A 2009 Human Rights report from the U.S. State Department stated that "The arrest, conviction, and subsequent treatment of Khodorkovskiy raised concerns about due process and the rule of law."


More recently, an international outcry erupted when three female members of the Russian Punk Band Pussy Riot were tried and imprisoned for staging a protest against Putin in an Orthodox Church in Moscow.

Missile Defense

In 2009, President Obama reversed a Bush-era plan to station 10 new long range missile-defense launchers in Eastern Europe, arguing that the plan relied on unproven technology, was too expensive, and would unnecessarily inflame relations with Russia. Bush's plan contributed to a major diplomatic rift with the Russians, who compared it to the Soviets' 1962 decision to station missile sites in Cuba (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and argued that America was trying to aggressively contain Russia's influence.

The Obama administration pledged to replace the Bush plan with a short-range missile defense system, arguing that the new system would more adequately address the threat posed by Iranian short- and medium-range missiles using more reliable technology.

Russian leaders responded positively but tentatively to President Obama's change of plans, with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev saying, "We appreciate this responsible move by the U.S. President...I am prepared to continue the dialogue." Republicans blasted the move, accusing the President of abandoning our Eastern European allies to appease Russia which has done little to show its gratitude by cooperating.

Iran & Syria


Russia's permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council allows them to thwart U.N. attempts to halt bloodshed in Syria and nuclear weapon development in Iran, forcing the United States and other allies to move forward without the full backing of the multinational body.

Nuclear Disarmament & Nonproliferation

Russia and the United States possess a majority of the world's nuclear weapons: of roughly 19,000 nuclear weapons in existence, American and Russian stockpiles account for 18,000. Though the recent START treaty made significant progress in reducing nuclear stockpiles in the two countries, much work remains. Moreover, Russia's willingness to provide nuclear technology to unstable regimes (including nuclear energy technology to Iran) and its spotty securitization of former Soviet nuclear materials continues to trouble many foreign policy analysts.

Next page: Solutions


START Treaty

On February 2, 2011, after a bipartisan vote of approval in the Senate, President Obama ratified the New START treaty, significantly reducing nuclear arms stockpiles in the United States and Russia. The treaty also set up a verification system to ensure that each country honors the terms of the agreement. The agreement did not address missile defense or conventional weapons capabilities.

Before New START, the last major reduction in nuclear arms, the first START treaty, was proposed in 1985 by then-President Ronald Reagan and ratified during the first Bush Administration more than 20 years ago.

Challenges: Some hawkish policymakers do not support any form of nuclear disarmament, arguing that we need to maintain a prohibitively destructive nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against external aggression. These hawks argue that the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is naive, and would only invite rogue regimes, unbound by global antinuclear norms, to threaten international peace. Others who may support nuclear arsenal reduction in theory objected to the specific terms of the agreement.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has argued that New START is tilted toward Russian interests, restricting American missile defense capabilities and allowing Russia to maintain a ten-to-one advantage in tactical nuclear warheads.

"Reset" Relationship

Recognizing that a variety of global issues would benefit from American-Russian cooperation, and that relations had deteriorated by the end of George W. Bush's tenure in office, the Obama administration came into office seeking a new relationship with Russia, announcing a much-publicized "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations. The "reset" was announced and dramatized at a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at which Clinton presented Lavrov with a "reset" button symbolizing the newfound cooperative spirit.

The "Reset," at first only a pithy slogan, also came to symbolize a substantive recalibration of American policy toward Russia, particularly on missile defense and nuclear disarmament, areas in which America moved to accommodate Russia while also pursuing its own goals. The "reset" has been less successful in modifying Russian policy on Iran and Syria, two rogue regimes that continue to benefit from Russian assistance.

Challenges: Republicans charge that the "Reset" has simply failed. Mitt Romney's campaign insists that we need to "Reset the 'Reset'," arguing that President Obama has been too pliant with the Russians and does not have much to show for it, sacrificing American strategic objectives for the remote chance that Russia might cooperate.

Romney has called Russia America's "number one geopolitical foe," accusing the President of naivete and explaining, "Russia has openly armed and protected a murderous regime in Syria, frustrated international sanctions on Iran, and opposed American efforts on a range of issues." Proponents of President Obama's "Reset" of U.S.-Russian relations must point to tangible benefits yielded by the new policy, explaining why the positives outweigh the negatives, or why the positive developments would not have been possible with a more adversarial American posture toward Russia.