Thomas Graham: Our Rocky Russian Relations

February 22, 2012 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 965

By Matt Williams:

A signature foreign policy initiative of in the early days in President Barack Obama’s Administration was a “reset” of relations with Russia after years of cyclical mistrust and cooperation. Yet, as Thomas Graham, a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs explains, the reset “ended at the moment when it reached its highest point” – the ratification of the New START Treaty 2010. Graham’s talk, part of a lecture series sponsored by the Jackson Institute drew a crowd of approximately 60 students, faculty, and members of the community and focused on the future of U.S.-Russian relations. As a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc., where he focuses on Russian and Eurasian affairs, Graham provided insight while also engaging his audience.

Graham began his talk with two related assertions. First, former and likely future President of Russia, Vladimir Putin will continue to lead Russia and second, the “reset” is dead. Much of this has to do with the fact that Mr. Putin symbolizes the negative images Americans hold in regard to Russia. With Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s current President, both President Obama and the nation as a whole could better relate to his style, ideology, and love of technology. Yet, with the imminent “re-election” of Mr. Putin—which Putin recently revealed had been planned since his first term, with no other option for Russia’s people—the U.S. shows no signs of seeking a warmer relationship and has in fact increased its rhetoric against Russia to highlight our differences.

Thomas Graham speaks in the Sterling International Room. Given his topic, the nationless map behind him is bitterly ironic, don't you think? (Williams/TYG).

Ultimately, Graham sought to explore the question of whether or not “the U.S. and Russia can sum up the imagination to launch a new constructive page beyond the reset” or will we “continue within a cycle of hope and disappointment.” Indeed, it would seem as if we are presently within the disappointment stage: discussions relating to missile defense are stagnant, U.S. has denounced human rights abuses in Russia, and Russia has countered U.S. positions on Libya and most recently, Syria. But another reset is not enough. Like a slow computer that needs a restart, the current framework of relations needs to be scrapped in favor of a relationship defined by meeting new strategic challenges and interests.

Establishing such a relationship, Graham explained, is no easy task. The United States faces a world that is more globalized than ever before, in which it is no longer a “rising” power, and in which we can’t use traditional approaches to foreign policy (such as isolationism or the single threat framework such as containment or unconditional surrender) that defined much of 20th Century American foreign policy. At the same time, Russia, for the first time in three centuries, is not the dynamic core of Eurasia. It is surrounded by stable, more dynamic power in China and Europe. Both countries, the U.S. and Russia continue to see each other as competitors rather than partners—but in reality, Graham notes, “neither poses a strategic threat to the other.”

Still, audience members left the talk without much hope for the warming of relations. A new constructive phase is unlikely to materialize under a renewed Putin administration in Russia and if both parties continue to view the relationship without considering both short-term and long-term goals. History and petty political differences will continue to prevent us from acting in a cooperative manner, even though this would be to both our interests—as in so much of world policy today.

Matt Williams ’13 is a Global Affairs major in Berkeley College. Contact him at

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