In March 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made news by presenting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a cartoonish "Reset" button that included a bit of a translation error. The U.S. used the Russian word for "overcharged" where "reset" should be. The button was supposed to symbolize newly inaugurated President Obama's outreach to Russia. In a way, it did.
Gaffe aside, Obama was actually able to foster pretty good relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. While Medvedev was president, until early 2012, the two leaders negotiated a new arms control treaty and safe passage for Afghanistan-bound U.S. troops through Russia; Medvedev agreed to approve tough U.N. sanctions on Iran; and Obama helped get Russia into the World Trade Organization.
Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse. Last month, Russia granted temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and a week later the White House said Obama had called off a planned one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — Medvedev's successor (and predecessor) — before a September G20 summit in Russia. Obama added to that snub by indirectly criticizing, on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a new Russian "gay propaganda" law criminalizing most public discussion of homosexuality.
On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that instead of meeting with Putin, Obama "may infuriate the Kremlin further by meeting Russian human rights activists, including LGBT rights groups, during his upcoming trip to St. Petersburg for the G20 summit." As Twitter master Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) might say: Assume reset dead.
What went wrong? Peter Baker says in The New York Times that "the story of the administration's 'reset' policy toward Russia is a case study in how the heady idealism of Mr. Obama's first term has given way to the disillusionment of his second." Critics call the whole thawing idea naive, Baker says, and even "Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves."
Baker reports it was also clear, as soon as Putin stepped back into the presidency, that he just wasn't that into resetting relations with the U.S. Obama sent over top adviser Tom Donilon to "preserve the momentum" the U.S. had built up with Medvedev. Those hopes were quickly dashed:
Rather than talk of cooperation, Mr. Putin opened the meeting with a sharp challenge underscoring his deep suspicion of American ambitions: "When," he asked pointedly, "are you going to start bombing Syria?" At the time, Mr. Obama had no plans for military involvement in the civil war raging in the heart of the Middle East, but Mr. Putin did not believe that. In Mr. Putin's view, the United States wanted only to meddle in places where it had no business, fomenting revolutions to install governments friendly to Washington. [New York Times]
And from there, things just deteriorated. In between two awkward face-to-face meetings at global summits, Obama made one more overture to Putin in April, but received no real response. Baker says that Snowden's arrival and prolonged stay at Moscow's international airport this summer, "coming on top of anger over a new Russian law against pro-gay 'propaganda,' was nothing more than a final death blow to the reset."
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells The New York Times that Obama made some mistakes, like convincing Medvedev to refrain from blocking intervention in Libya at the U.N. Security Council — when intervention turned to regime change, Gates says, "the Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya" — but pins most of the blame on Putin.
Obama was sincere in his outreach efforts, but Putin is "about lost power, lost empire, lost glory," Gates tells Baker. "It will be very difficult to make headway as long as he's there."