Kerry: ‘I Don’t Know What You Mean by the Reset’ With Russia

By Patrick Goodenough | March 2, 2014 | 9:36 PM EST

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right hands Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a red button to symbolize the administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia, in Geneva on March 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini, File)

( – For a brief moment during his interview on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to suggest that he was unaware of the administration’s much-hyped 2009 “reset” with Russia.

Asked whether he acknowledged  that the administration’s “reset” with Russia was dead, Kerry began, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by the reset.”

“The reset in relations that this administration called for,” interjected interviewer David Gregory.

“No, I know, I know. I know,” Kerry said. “But long ago, we’ve entered into a different phase with Russia. I don’t think this is a moment to be proclaiming one thing or the other.”

Even as the U.S. has “had difficulties with Russia with respect to certain issues,” he continued, Moscow has cooperated in other areas. He cited the 2010 New START arms-reduction treaty and what he said has been Russian cooperation on Afghanistan (transit routes for NATO supplies) and Iran (negotiations over the nuclear program).

“It’s not a zero-sum, dead/alive – it’s a question of differences, very profound differences on certain issues and certain approaches, and we’ve made those very clear over the course of the last months.”

The reset – a brief history

The Obama administration introduced the “reset button” analogy just weeks after taking office, at a time when relations with Russia remained strained over its 2008 invasion of Georgia, U.S. missile defense plans for Europe, and Georgia and Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.

Addressing the Munich security conference in early February 2009, Vice President Joe Biden said recent years had seen “a dangerous drift in relations” between NATO members and Russia.

It was time “to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia,” he said.

“Reset” button offered by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on March 6, 2009. (Photo: State Department)

A month later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton graphically reinforced the message. After implicitly criticizing the Bush administration for its response to Russia’s war in Georgia – “I don’t think you punish Russia by stopping conversations with them” – Clinton met with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva, and handed him a red button to symbolize the “reset.”

(Instead of “reset” in Russian, the button bore the word “peregruzka,” which means “overload,” an error Lavrov pointed out with a smile.)

“It is a very, very large red button,” Lavrov noted, “and I do hope that both Russia and the United States and all other countries would never, ever push any other buttons associated with the initiation of destructive facilities. We will keep pushing the reset button of constructive interaction.”

In April 2009, Obama and then-President Dmitry Medvedev met in London, where the two in a joint statement reaffirmed that “the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over.” The meeting also produced the first touted achievement of the reset – an agreement to work on reducing nuclear weapons arsenals.

The reset prompted some concern in parts of Europe historically dominated by the Soviet Union: A group of prominent political leaders in eastern and central Europe, including Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Lech Walesa of Poland, in an open letter that July expressed “nervousness” that the desire to improve relations with Moscow would entail the “wrong concessions to Russia.”

Observers noted that although Obama traveled to Europe six times in his first year in office, neither Georgia nor Ukraine were on his itinerary. (Biden did visit both countries in 2009, and voiced support for their NATO hopes.)

Even in the early months of the reset, Russia made few concessions to Washington. In July, Obama during a visit to Moscow urged Russia to respect “Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” – but just days later Medvedev paid a provocative visit to South Ossetia, one of two Georgian territories Russia continues to occupy since the 2008 war.

State Department officials continued to use the reset term regularly over the following years, even as relations cooled – over missile defense, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, anti-democratic policies at home, and deep differences about the Syrian civil war.

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during a<span class="imagecaption"> G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013. (AP Photo, File)</span>

Frequency of use eventually began to drop off, and last April, then department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland referred in a briefing to “what was known as the reset with Russia in the first term.”

Asked whether that implied the reset was over, she said, “No, I didn’t mean to imply that at all.”

Nonetheless, a search of daily briefings brings up no further use of the term by department briefers since that day. (Spokeswoman Jen Psaki did use it once in reference to the possibility the U.S. could “reset” relations with Iran, following the election of President Hasan Rouhani.)

Republican critics of Putin’s Russia have been calling for years for the administration to concede that the reset has failed.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did so in a speech in late 2010, calling for “a greater sense of realism about Russia – about the recent history of our relationship, about the substantial limitations on Russian power, about the divergences in U.S. and Russian interests, and about the lack of shared values between our governments.”

In the fall of 2012, after Moscow accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of interfering in the Russian political process and ordered it shut down its operations in the country, McCain said again that the reset had failed.

But Nuland at the time defended the policy, saying that “we have had a lot of individual and collective successes from the reset,” citing Russian cooperation on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Last Sunday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said on Fox News Sunday that the reset “has failed; it’s time to reset the reset,” and in an op-ed on Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) urged the administration to “publicly acknowledge that its ‘reset’ with Russia is dead.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow