The Russian Pause

How Putin Stalled the Reset

A sticker with the word "Obey!" worn during an opposition protest on Revolution Square in central Moscow, February 26, 2012. Denis Sinyakov/Courtesy Reuters

Last week, after canceling a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama said at a White House press conference that “it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States.” But where is Russia going?

As I outlined in Foreign Affairs in March, Russia is guided by the Putin Doctrine, which seeks the recovery of economic, geostrategic, and political assets lost by the Soviet state in the revolution of 1987–1991. The doctrine also promotes an assertive affirmation of three essential national goals, inherited from the Soviet Union and likely to be upheld by any Russian regime: the maintenance of Russia’s roles as a nuclear superpower; as the military, economic, and cultural hegemon in former Soviet territories (with the exception of the three Baltic states); and as a great world power.

Putin’s interpretation of the final imperative casts Russia as a counterbalance to the United States. Russia’s granting of political asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden is only the latest reaffirmation of this policy. The Kremlin remains unyielding on further sanctions against Iran, and, despite Obama’s entreaties, has hardened its position on Syria. As Putin explained the Snowden decision on state television: “Russia is not like other countries. We have an independent foreign policy.” 

Because the Putin Doctrine almost by definition fosters confrontation with the United States, I argued, the United States should abandon its “reset” with Russia in favor of a “strategic pause.” And so Obama was right to want such an intermission to define the priorities in the relationship and the price each side is prepared to pay for achieving its goals.


In recent months, the Kremlin has doubled down on the Putin Doctrine, as evidenced by growing authoritarianism at home and recalcitrance in foreign policy, in particular global security

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