The U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission established by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev opened a new chapter in bilateral relations between the United States and Russia, with a focus on institutions, specific deliverables, and long-term perspective. Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, presented his report, Indispensable Institutions: The Obama-Medvedev Commission and Five Decades of U.S.-Russia Dialogue. Eric Rubin, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Russia, and Ambassador Eduard Malayan, executive secretary of the commission—who also reviewed the Russian version of the report published by the Carnegie Moscow Center—participated in the discussion. Carnegie Moscow Center’s Natalia Bubnova moderated.

The Evolution of U.S.-Russia Relations

Rojansky introduced his report as a study not of the policies or problems of the relations but of the institutions that lay the framework for bilateral dialogue between Washington and Moscow.

  • Cold War Era: The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two super-powers after the Second World War. However, no real dialogue existed between them until 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet Union opened up to peaceful co-existence with the United States, Rojansky said. The first concrete step in this direction was the signing of the Lacy-Zarubin agreement—named after the chief U.S. and Soviet negotiators—which allowed for closely monitored academic and technical exchanges of students and scholars. The rest of the Cold War period was marked by summit diplomacy covering various areas such as health, agriculture, the environment, and disarmament, Rojansky noted.
  • The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin sought to promote bilateral cooperation with the establishment of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission in 1993. The commission—led by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin—was mandated to “develop a program to advance a new joint agenda in energy, space, and science and technology to the benefit of both countries.” Rojansky said the commission was able to promote more positive relations, but it could not build a lasting foundation for working-level U.S.-Russia cooperation independent of the two countries’ leaders.
  • The Bush-Putin Strategic Dialogue: In 2001, then newly elected President George W. Bush approached U.S.-Russia relations differently from his predecessors. According to Rojansky, Bush wanted to develop relations with Russia as he would with any other country, without the burden of historical complications that existed between the two nations. But what began as a strategic dialogue between Bush and President Vladimir Putin in areas such as trade and economic development was soon derailed by the Iraq War, NATO expansion in the post-Soviet space, and the 2008 war in Georgia. Moreover, the arrest of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky led American companies to become increasingly uncomfortable about conducting business in Russia and, as a result, Russia turned into a lower priority for the United States, Rojansky said.

The Obama-Medvedev Commission

A change of leadership in both Washington and Moscow ignited new hopes of improving relations between the two countries. According to Rojansky, the Bilateral Presidential Commission, established in 2009, may outlast one presidential term because its leaders have learned from past mistakes. Unlike the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, the new commission is not overly formalistic and permits flexibility. At the same time, unlike the Bush-Putin Strategic Dialogue, the commission has developed concrete goals and enforced the need for accountability from its stakeholders.

  • Structure: The commission is composed of eighteen working groups that focus on various areas of cooperation, such as counterterrorism, energy, civil society, and business development and economic relations. Though the commission is led by the two presidents, its coordinators are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who oversee the working groups, which are in turn co-chaired by senior executive branch officials from both countries.
  • Working relations: Rojansky noted that working relations between representatives of the two countries are good, that the commission enjoys the support of both the White House and the Kremlin, and that officials on both sides have enough freedom to be proactive to build better relations. Malayan added that the commission is taken seriously by many officials from both countries, who have expressed interest in taking part in its activities.
  • Achievements: In less than two years, the commission has achieved results across various areas, including jointly combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan and Pakistan; creating a common U.S., Russian, and Canadian military training center; tracking down financial institutions that fund Islamic terrorism; working on plutonium disposal; and establishing a joint national park in Alaska and the Bering Strait.
  • Challenges: According to Rojansky, one challenge for the commission is the lack of a large community in either country that cares about furthering the bilateral relationship. Both Malayan and Rubin added that developing ties between civil societies and businesses in the two countries is critical for the relationship to grow. In the absence of such ties, Rojansky feared that U.S.-Russia relations could become a lower priority for leaders in both countries as the 2012 presidential elections approach. Another challenge is the different understanding the working groups have of concepts like modernization, which lead to disagreements among working group members. Other potential complications that could arise include another spy scandal or instability in the post-Soviet space, he added.

Future of the Commission

Rojansky said the commission’s success will depend on being honest and realistic about the results it can achieve, rather than focusing on the high expectations formed under the “reset” policy between Washington and Moscow. The commission’s success in achieving some smaller goals already creates a positive atmosphere that further works to improve bilateral relations. Rojansky said that it is better to keep larger areas of discussions such as the START Treaty or the dialogue about Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization outside of the commission’s purview, since a failure in these areas could set back the commission’s work and hamper U.S.-Russia relations.