JHI on the Issues 2016: Did the Reset Affect European Deterrence?

Candidate Statement:  During the second presidential debate, Secretary Clinton stated that she would stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In January, Clinton had stated her relationship with Putin was “…one, I think, of respect. We've had some very tough dealings with one another.  And I know that he's someone that you have to continuously stand up to because, like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can unless you do.  And we need to get the Europeans to be more willing to stand up… we've got to be more united in preventing Putin from taking a more aggressive stance in Europe and the Middle East.”

Summary: Hillary Clinton has repeatedly sought to distinguish herself from Donald Trump by characterizing herself as a strong defender of U.S. interests, values, and allies in relations with Russia.  Secretary Clinton correctly assesses Putin as a “bully,” the stakes involved in regions of U.S.-Russian tension like Syria and Ukraine, and the importance of America and its allies jointly confronting him.  However, Clinton’s rhetoric regarding Putin and Russia is inconsistent with her tenure as Secretary of State.  The “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations over which Clinton presided as Secretary of State wrought significant and lasting damage to U.S. strategic interests and had a particularly destructive effect on our Central and Eastern European allies, contributing to a crisis of deterrence in Europe.  If she is elected president, we hope Secretary Clinton adheres to the spirit of her recent comments, moves to substantially strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe, and avoids the old patterns that she set in U.S.-Russian relations as Secretary of State.

Talking Points:

  • The U.S.-Russia “reset” which Clinton inaugurated under the Obama administration directly contributed to the conditions that led to the outbreak of the Ukraine war and to the current crisis of deterrence in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Although designed to pursue “win-win” approaches to global problems, the “reset” involved 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. Priority was given to resetting U.S.-Russia bilateral relations at the expense of pursuing greater integration for these countries into the security and economic architecture of Western Europe.
    • Withdrawing U.S. brigade combat teams and other military forces from Europe in the years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
    • Sidelining longstanding U.S. support for democracy and human rights both in Russia and in countries neighboring Russia, effectively allowing Putin to vigorously and violently contain democratization efforts at home and along Russia’s borders.
  • When a group of leaders and intellectuals from the post-Communist transition countries publicly voiced their concerns about the direction of the “reset,” they were ignored and derided by the Obama administration.
  • Putin pocketed these concessions and interpreted them as part of a declining U.S. commitment to European security, which strengthened his confidence about the ability to invade Ukraine, threaten other neighbors, violate arms control agreements, and exert Russian influence and power over European allies.
  • Today, Russia maintains a commanding military presence in the Baltic and other portions of Central and Eastern Europe that NATO is only beginning to match.
  • Putin has boasted that he could be in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest in two days.  Many Polish and Baltic leaders assume that if they were to invoke Article 5 in a crisis, NATO would not be able to summon the resources and will to respond effectively.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • How does Secretary Clinton reconcile her calls to “continuously stand up to” Putin as “somebody who will take as much as he possibly can” with her record as Secretary of State?
  • Was the Obama administration’s decision to strengthen U.S. military forces in Europe and particularly Central and Eastern Europe a de facto admission of reset’s failure?
  • Why did Secretary Clinton condone and champion the reset so soon after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 had demonstrated Putin’s appetite and ability to attack countries in his neighborhood?  Shouldn’t sanctions—rather than engagement—have been the right approach?
  • What is Secretary Clinton’s position on NATO enlargement, especially regarding Georgia and Ukraine?
  • What specific steps would her administration take to redress military imbalances in the Baltic and assist the EU in reengaging the lands between Europe and Russia?
  • What effect does the crisis of deterrence in Central and Eastern Europe have on America’s credibility and national security at large?


  • Secretary Clinton rarely identifies any concrete achievements of the “reset” policy because even its modest achievements have been fleeting.  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.  For example, the U.S. Senate approved the New START Treaty in 2010, but Russia has not fully complied with its treaty obligations and has also severely breached the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  Additionally, Russian “cooperation” on Iran has transformed Tehran into a Russian arms bazaar, where the two countries recently completed the sale of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran.  For more on Russia’s international provocations, read JHI’s chapter on Russia in the book Choosing to Lead.
  • Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence in Europe has dropped from more than 300,000 troops to about 60,000.  The Obama administration accelerated this process, removing 15 bases and most combat-ready units, including two Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), two air squadrons, and all remaining U.S. heavy armor in the years prior to the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The Russian annexation of Crimea by force violated the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the Budapest Memorandum.  When the Obama administration failed to facilitate a military response and actively discouraged Ukrainians from resisting Russian forces, stating that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not a strategic concern, the administration threw our European alliances into disarray.
  • When the Obama administration overhauled U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, it reduced the U.S. military presence on the continent, effectively eroding the foundations of conventional deterrence and undermining the credibility of U.S. defense commitments to NATO allies.  Unfavorable force ratios, coupled with an unopposed Russian military presence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, allows Russia to effectively hold large portions of Central and Eastern Europe hostage.  Putin can threaten to re-escalate the Ukraine war or ignite other frontier conflicts to dissuade renewed EU integration efforts in the East and NATO expansion along the Russian periphery.  Europe’s disunity aids these tactics, offering a mosaic of variously arming, accommodating, or cowering states whose divisions are easy to stoke.  For more on how the U.S. could strengthen Europe’s deterrence, read JHI’s chapter on Europe in Choosing to Lead.
  • The “reset” also effectively bolstered Putin’s ability to portray himself, at home and abroad, as having gained the upper hand in relations with the United States.  Freely exerting its will on the world stage in Ukraine and now in Syria, Russia has been able to strategically and ideologically pull erstwhile U.S. allies into its orbit.  Not only are other countries like Hungary and Turkey looking increasingly to Moscow for leadership, they are emulating Putin's despotism as well.