On Wednesday, President Obama canceled an upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a move my colleagues described as "a rare, deliberate snub that reflects the fresh damage done by the Edward Snowden case to an important relationship already in decline."
The White House added that it hadn't expected much from the summit anyway, given the "lack of progress" on issues like missile defense and arms control, trade, and human rights over the past year.
So why was the relationship in decline, anyway? A big report (pdf) earlier this year from the Congressional Research Service does a nice job detailing the tempestuous back-and-forth between the United States and Russia since 2009. Here are some of the big milestones — and points of contention — in the relationship:
-- "The reset": In a speech at Munich in February 2009, Vice President Biden first hinted that the Obama administration would like to "reset" America's relationship with Russia, which had deteriorated to its lowest point since the Cold War after Russia's war with Georgia in 2008.
Two months later, in April, Obama and then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev held their first "get acquainted" meeting in London, pledging to "deepen cooperation" on issues like nuclear terrorism.
The CRS report cites a Russian analyst who argues that this "reset" likely couldn't have happened if Vladimir Putin had still been president in 2009, as Obama and other Western leaders were responding to Medvedev's apparent "foreign policy reasonableness."
-- Early cooperation over arms control: In June 2010, after a year of negotiations, Obama and Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which aimed to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on both sides by roughly 30 percent, down to 1,550. The treaty also limited the number of nuclear-armed submarines and bombers. After being ratified by the Senate, New START went into force on February 2011.
That didn't put the issue to rest, however. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama said he'd like to seek "further reductions in our nuclear arsenals." CRS, however, warns that "it may be difficult to negotiate another treaty." That's because Russia has signaled it won't shrink its arsenal any further until the "United States agrees to legally binding limits on its missile defense programs." And the United States isn't overly inclined to do that.
-- Disagreements on Iran's nuclear program: Russia has long supplied Iran with various forms of nuclear assistance, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Moscow's leaders maintain that Iran's nuclear program is legal, proper, and poses no threat, although it does concede that "a nuclear-armed Iran would be destabilizing and undesirable" (that's CRS's phrasing).
In June 2010, Russia joined with the United States and Europe in backing a U.N. resolution to tighten sanctions on Iran over concerns about nuclear proliferation. U.S. officials say the resolution couldn't have happened without Russia's cooperation.
That said, adds CRS, Russia will only go so far to spoil its relationship with Iran: "Russia has denounced added sanctions imposed by the United States, the EU, and other countries in the wake of the approval of UNSC Resolution 1929."
-- Clashes over Syria's civil war: "U.S.-Russia relations increasingly have become strained as a result of a Syrian government crackdown on civil unrest that intensified in early 2011," the CRS report notes. "Russia has maintained ties with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Asad throughout the conflict." That includes both arms sales and the fact that Russia's only Mediterranean sea facility, the naval base at Tartus, is located in Syria.
In February 2012, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have condemned "gross violations" of human rights by Assad's regime. Susan Rice, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, said at the time: "The United States is disgusted that a couple of members of this Council continue to prevent us from ... addressing an ever-deepening crisis in Syria."
-- Spies and arrests: In June 2010, the U.S. Justice Department said it had arrested 10 Russian spies living inside the United States. Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister of Russia at the time, was highly critical of the move: "The police went out of control [and] are throwing people in jail," he told Bill Clinton. "I hope that all the positive gains that have been achieved in our relationship will not be damaged by the recent event."
A month later, the 10 prisoners in U.S. custody were flown to Vienna and exchanged for four Russian citizens whom Moscow had alleged were Western spies. That swap appeared to put the spy issue to rest for the time being...
-- Putin's re-election and the crackdown on human rights: In March 2012, Putin recaptured the presidency in Russia, winning 63.6 percent of the vote. The parliament quickly confirmed Medvedev as prime minster, allowing the two to trade places.
In the months that followed, the Russian legislature passed a number of new laws seen as rolling back the modest democratic gains of the Medvedev era — including restrictions on gubenatorial elections in the provinces, increased fines against protesters who "violate the public order," a blacklist of Internet sites in the name of "protecting children," and a law requiring NGOs to register as "foreign agents." (You can see a full list on p. 11 of the CRS report.)
-- Sparring over trade: In August 2012, Russia finally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), one of several developments that the Obama administration cited as evidence of a "reset" in relations.
Still, trade policy between the two has been tied up in human rights' issues. In December 2012, the White House signed a bill that authorized permanent normal trade relations with Russia, but also included sanctions on those responsible for the detention and death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and for other human-rights abuses in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry had earlier called the bill “belligerently unfriendly and provocative.”
-- USAID expelled from Russia: In September 2012, the Russia government told the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to leave the country within a month, arguing that the aid agency was attempting "to influence, by means of allocating grants, political processes including elections at different levels and civic institutions."
USAID, for its part, says it has given Russia about $2.7 billion in assistance since 1992, including programs to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and trafficking. While USAID had funded voter-education programs, some of that money had gone to Putin's United Russia party, too. The agency said it hopes to continue working with NGOs in the country, although the Russian Foreign Ministry has warned against these attempts.
-- Cooperation over North Korea: Although the CRS report notes that Russia and North Korea have been strengthening their ties over the past decade, it also points out that this is one area where Russia and the U.S. have actually managed to find common ground in recent months.
In December 2012, Russia joined the United States in condemning North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile. And in March 2013, Russia supported a U.S.-backed U.N. resolution to impose new sanctions on the country, while urging a resumption of multilateral talks.
-- U.S. criticism of gay rights in Russia. Obama has criticized a Russian law, enacted in June 2013, that prohibits public events promoting gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples. Appearing on the "Tonight Show," Obama said he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”
-- And finally... Edward Snowden: Then there's Snowden. In August 2013, Obama canceled an upcoming summit with Putin on Wednesday after Moscow granted asylum to Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who is wanted on espionage charges after leaking to the media highly classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs.
--My colleague Max Fisher has a longer take on why the U.S. Russia relationship is falling apart over at World Views. "The big problem may not be that Moscow and Washington disagree – although they certainly do – but that they just don’t care enough about those disagreements to go through the trouble of fixing them."
--More on the canceled U.S.-Russia summit by Julia Ioffe, who certainly knows more about Russia than any of us do, here and even here. One key point: "In other words, the Russians aren't mad, really. They know, as the Americans know, that they've reached a dead end of sorts, a cul-de-sac. The question now is, how do they get out of it?"