In a meeting in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Clinton presented a token of good faith from the United States: a bright red and yellow button, bearing the word “reset” in Russian.
The term represented a larger principle of the Obama Administration: U.S.-Russia relations needed to start afresh. But the Russian word on the button didn’t mean “reset” at all.
“You got it wrong," Lavrov told Clinton. The word on the button translated to “overcharged.”
The gaffe blew over quickly. But now, Clinton might be wishing she’d picked another word entirely.
As Russia took control of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, taking advantage of political upheaval there, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored demands by the U.S. and its allies to pull back his forces.
The change in dynamics has flipped political arguments on their heads — suddenly, the reset in relations spearheaded by Clinton has shifted from an apparent moment of strength during her tenure as secretary of state to a potential political land mine.
In a speech at UCLA on Wednesday, Clinton defended herself. “I was very clear-eyed about what I thought we could get done,” she said.
“‘Reset’ was a phrase, a word used to say, ‘OK, we’re not happy about [Russia’s war with] Georgia, we’re not happy about other efforts to re-Sovietize the border — we’re going to deal with that — but we want to get some other things done.’ And we did,” she said.
And in another speech in California, Clinton toughened her rhetoric on Putin, comparing Russia issuing passports to ethnic Russians in Ukraine to a similar scheme carried out by Hitler in the lead-up to World War II.
Staking out her stance early on Russia could help Clinton should she run for the presidency in 2016, particularly in terms of explaining away past policy anomalies. Her “reset” remark by itself likely won't be a prominent issue.
"In general, foreign policy concerns tend not to be at the forefront of voters' minds,” said Lanhee Chen, who advised Mitt Romney on foreign policy during the 2012 presidential election, “but you start to line up enough of those foreign policy failures, and it becomes an issue for Clinton."
Indeed, the topic is still raw among Romney’s former aides, who in the past week have watched as Romney’s stance on Russia, formerly a source of ridicule, has begun to seem prescient.
Romney identified Russia during his campaign as the greatest “geopolitical foe” of the U.S., and it was an issue that was personally important to Romney, his aides say.
During a key foreign trip during the campaign, Romney traveled to Poland to highlight a missile defense shield that President George W. Bush had promised to put in place to defend against Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe, but which Obama had later scrapped.
The key moment for Romney on Russia, the one people remembered, came during the final debate with President Obama, when Obama took issue with Romney naming Russia as the country’s greatest “geopolitical foe.”
“The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War's been over for 20 years,” the president said.
Romney tried to explain that he didn’t mean Russia was a national security threat similar to terrorist groups or rogue states, but that it was working against America’s interests.
“Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe ... and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face,” Romney responded. “Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”
But the attack stuck, not Romney’s defense.
“We defended it pretty vigorously and offered evidence time and time again making the case,” recalled Kevin Madden, who worked as a senior adviser on the campaign. “As a campaign and candidate, we could have been more aggressive in promoting that case and some of the failures of Obama's worldview. But the media was largely in the tank with the White House that naming Russia as geopolitical foe was a mistake.”
The campaign polled the issue a few times toward the end of the race and found that, indeed, voters were not fans of Putin nor Russia.
But it didn’t alter the course of campaign — and in that, perhaps, Clinton can take heart.