Sour U.S. - Russia relations threaten Obama's foreign policy agenda
By Anne Gearan
A poisonous unraveling of U.S. relations with
Russia in recent months represents more than the failure of President Obama’s
first-term attempt to “reset” badly frayed bilateral relations. It threatens
pillars of Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda as well.
From Syria and Iran to North Korea and Afghanistan, Russian President
Vladimir Putin holds cards that he can use to help or hurt Obama administration
Obama badly needs Russian help to get U.S. troops and gear out of landlocked
Afghanistan. He also wants Russian cooperation — or at least a quiet agreement
not to interfere — on other international fronts.
Putin, however, appears to see little reason to help. Since his election last
year to a third term as president, his political stock has risen among many
Russians as he has confronted the West, and the United States in particular. The
pro-democracy street demonstrations of a year ago have evaporated, leaving the
former KGB officer in clear control.
In December, both countries passed punitive laws that capped a year of
deteriorating relations. A U.S. law targeting Russia’s human rights record and a tit-for-tat law banning
American adoption of Russian children reflected domestic politics
and national chauvinism, and they reinforced many of the worst suspicions that
each nation holds about the other.
The low point puts Obama in the uncomfortable position of deciding how far to
bend to appease Putin, who began his tenure last spring by snubbing Obama’s
invitation for an Oval Office visit.
Obama has long been expected to visit Russia this year, although no summit
has been scheduled.
“The real question for Putin and Obama is, putting aside the issues on which
they are just bound to disagree — like democracy and Syria — what are the issues
that matter to them on which they can cooperate?” said Stephen Sestanovich, a
Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The likelihood is that over the next term, for both of them, that is likely
to be a shorter list than it was in the past four years.”
Like the United States, Russia holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, and
its membership in other diplomatic clubs confers outsize international clout to
the former superpower.
By saying no, Putin can stymie U.S. goals in matters far beyond his own
shores — and far removed from Russia’s long-standing beef with the United States
over the latter’s plans to erect a missile defense shield in Europe.
U.S. leverage is limited. Obama is unlikely to either drop the missile
defense plan or revisit steps that have eased commercial trade between both
nations. Russia appears less swayed by the prospect of arms-control concessions
than in the past.
From Russia’s perspective, Obama has ignored or overridden its concerns on
two major issues — missile defense and the military intervention in Libya. Both
instances contributed to the Russian perception that the United States’ main
leverage is its ability to roll over friends and foes alike.
No U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has had a better relationship with
Russia in his second term than in the first, Sestanovich said. But none has
started the second with as deep and recent a setback as the harsh exchanges of
Congress issued a broad denunciation of Russian
human rights practices, applying new travel and financial restrictions on
Russians accused of rights abuses. The law is named for a Russian lawyer who
died in prison in 2009. Obama signed off on the measure, dropping objections he
had voiced earlier.
Moscow called the legislation “odious.”
“We certainly understand the hidden agenda of this political game started by
those who are against the improvement of Russian-American relations,” Russia’s
Foreign Ministry said. “They are eager to use any pretext to punish Russia for
its independent and principled position in international affairs.”
Russia retaliated by enacting the law banning American adoptions of Russian
children, leaving hundreds of waiting families in limbo. The Dima Yakovlev law
is named for a Russian-born toddler who died in 2008 after being left alone in a
hot car by his adoptive American father. The Kremlin eased its position slightly
Thursday, saying the law would not go into effect until next year.
The Obama administration knew Putin would not be easy to deal with, but the
rapid decline in relations was a surprise, according to officials and analysts.
The United States says that a new Russian law requiring organizations and
journalists receiving international funding to register as foreign agents is
intended to quash criticism of Putin’s government.
Putin expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development without notice
in September, ending two decades of work that provided medical and other
services alongside what he sees as subversive support for democracy.
Moscow next stunned Washington by announcing the end of an arms control
agreement that has been a foundation of U.S.-
cooperation since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The 1991 pact had been renewed twice and, by U.S. figures, had allowed
deactivation of more than 7,650 strategic warheads.
“Our overall approach remains to try to cooperate with Russia as much as we
can on as many issues as we can,” including Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, said
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“But we’re also going to be very clear and very frank when we disagree, as we
do with regard to human rights practices, quality of democracy in Russia and as
we have in the past on Syria and other things,” she said.
In some instances, the U.S. response has been tough. Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month that Russia is trying to reassert
political and economic influence across nations that were once part of the
“There is a move to re-Sovietize the region” in the guise of regional
integration, Clinton told a group of lawyers and rights advocates in Ireland.
“Let’s make no mistake about it,” she said. “We know what the goal is, and we
are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
Clinton’s unguarded remarks reflected U.S. dismay at the backsliding of
political and press freedoms in Russia and neighboring states, and wider
frustration with Moscow. Her warning, coming hours before she met Russia’s
foreign minister for difficult talks about the civil war in Syria, also
illustrated the paradox for Washington in condemning perceived Russian excesses
while asking for Russian help.
Russia is a key ally of Syria and maintains a naval base on its Mediterranean
coast. For a variety of reasons, Russia has refused to back international moves
to challenge the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The standoff effectively freezes any meaningful action against Assad nearly
two years into a war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than
The U.S. relationship with Russia is uneasy under the best of circumstances
and has succeeded chiefly in areas of mutual security interest, such as arms
control. Obama has been unable to expand those areas of cooperation, despite
genial relations with Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.
Obama told Medvedev last year that he would have more leeway to negotiate on
missile defense after the U.S presidential election. Russians ridiculed Medvedev
as naive for believing any of Obama’s pledges, said Mark Katz, a Russia
specialist at George Mason University.
“A lot of Russians feel this way, but Putin feels it very deeply — that no
matter what he does, the Americans will take advantage of them,” Katz said.
“Our attitude is that we’re only asking them to do things that they should do
anyway and that we don’t have to make concessions to them for going along with
us. There’s just a basic difference there.”