JHI on the Issues 2016: Did the Russian Reset Actually Work?

Candidate Statement: During the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said, “There's no doubt now that Russia has used cyber attacks against all kinds of organizations in our country, and I am deeply concerned about this . . . Putin is playing a really tough, long game here.”  On July 24, 2014, Hillary Clinton defended the “reset” of U.S. policy towards Russia by arguing that “the reset worked…It was an effort to try to obtain Russian cooperation on some key objectives while Medvedev was president” and that it was “a device to try to refocus attention on the transactional efforts that we needed to get done with the Russians.”

Summary:  Clinton’s repeated criticisms of Russian aggression are a tacit admission that her reset strategy was a failed foreign policy.  She misjudged the Russians by showing weakness and the Russians have systematically exploited this opening for more than seven years.  Secretary Clinton vastly overstates the results of the reset in U.S.-Russian relations and fails to acknowledge its heavy price on U.S. relationships with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other nations in the post-Soviet space; U.S. defense commitments in Eastern Europe; and U.S. support for democracy and civil society in Russia.

Talking Points:

  • The heavy price of the reset policy far outweighs its modest achievements.
  • Although designed to pursue “win-win” approaches to global problems, the reset policy triggered a series of U.S. concessions to Russia.  These included:
    • Overhauling the Bush administration’s U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe to placate Russian concerns.
    • Downgrading U.S. relations with nations in Central and Eastern Europe, including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
    • Withdrawing U.S. brigade combat teams and other military forces from Europe in the years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
    • De-linking Russia’s severely deteriorating human rights situation from other items in the bilateral agenda.
  • Putin pocketed these concessions and interpreted them as part of a declining U.S. commitment to European security, which gave him confidence to invade Ukraine, threaten other neighbors, violate arms control agreements, and venture into the Middle East by propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
  • U.S. policy should recognize Putin as a corrupt authoritarian and vigorously defend U.S. interests and values in the region.  Here’s a plan to do so from JHI’s book, Choosing to Lead.


  • Secretary Clinton rarely identifies any concrete achievements of the “reset” policy because even its modest achievements have been fleeting.
  • For example, enhanced Russian “cooperation” on Iran has transformed Tehran into a Russian arms bazaar, including the recent sale of the S-300 missile defense system.
  • The U.S. Senate approved the New START Treaty in 2010, but Russia has not fully complied with its treaty obligations. Russia has also severely breached the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
  • In 2012, Moscow joined the World Trade Organization but continues to impose trade and energy embargoes against its neighbors as a tool of political coercion.
  • Although the opening of the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan via Russia was a modest achievement of the reset, it also gave Moscow clear economic benefits and was in their interest to cooperate.
  • When the Obama administration overhauled U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, it undermined the credibility of U.S. defense commitments to NATO allies.  It led to a downgrade of U.S. relationships with Russia’s neighbors.  It resulted in a withdrawal of U.S. brigade combat teams from Europe in the years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  And it handed Russia its long sought “123 Agreement” on civil nuclear cooperation, which was suspended following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.  
  • Many of these issues—like New START and the Northern Distribution Network—were Russian strategic priorities, and the Obama administration repeatedly caved to one-sided deals that only advantaged Russia.
  • Domestically, Russia has arrested, jailed, poisoned, and killed journalists, civic activists, whistleblowers, and opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in 2015. 
  • Russia is one of the world’s most corrupt governments, ranking 119 out of 167 by Transparency International.
  • Russia annexed the territory of another European country by force for the first time since World War II, thereby violating the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the Budapest Memorandum.  It routinely threatens NATO allies with invasion, violates airspace of other nations, wages cyberwar, and harasses U.S. military aircraft in the Baltic and Black Seas.
  • Lastly, Russia has propped up the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, routinely bombing U.S.-trained opposition forces. 

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Secretary Clinton said at the presidential debate that Russia committed cyber attacks against the United States, and she stated in 2014 that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are “like what Hitler did back in the ‘30s.”  Isn’t this an admission that her reset policy did not work?
  • Isn’t the Obama administration’s decision to return U.S. military forces to Europe in recent years a de facto admission of reset’s failure?
  • Didn’t the reset policy come far too soon after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and demonstrate that Russian aggression carried few costs?  Shouldn’t sanctions—rather than reset—have been the right approach?
  • Isn’t Russia more corrupt, more aggressive, more anti-American, and more authoritarian than it was prior to her reset policy?
  • How does Secretary Clinton’s Russia policy differ from President Obama’s policy?