U.S.-Russia relationship turns chilly, again


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk during a meeting in Sweden earlier this year in May. President Obama, who once invested time and energy in Russia, has pushed the relationship into new phase by canceling summit with Putin. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
August 8, 2013

U.S. relations with Russia officially settled into a trough this week when President Obama canceled a summit planned for next month with Vladimir Putin, familiar surroundings for two countries that regularly approach each other only to turn away in disappointment.

The White House decision to call off the summit, announced Wednesday, marked the end of Obama’s attempt to revive a relationship that by 2008 had reached its lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russian reaction has been muted, with officials expressing disappointment but avoiding cataclysmic pronouncements. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, foresaw no immediate crisis. But, he advised, don’t expect a productive relationship any time in the near future.

In the United States, the decision was greeted positively by those who think that Obama has gotten as much as he can from Russia and that it's time to signal displeasure about Moscow's increasingly repressive behavior and crackdown on civil society.

The pendulum that began a positive shift in 2009 has started to swing in the opposite direction, said Angela Stent, a Georgetown University scholar who has a book coming out in December on U.S.-Russian relations.


TIMELINE: The highs and lows in U.S.-Russia relationship

“The U.S. is realizing you can try to improve relations, you can try to reset them,” Stent said in a telephone interview, “but you can only go so far, considering the country you are dealing with. I am sure Russia thinks the same thing.”

The countries have experienced highs and lows since the Soviet years. Allies during World War II, they turned into bitter foes when the Cold War began in 1948, then began building closer ties after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

They even survived a canceled summit in 1960, when Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev decided against meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Soviet Union shot down Gary Powers in a U.S. spy plane over the Urals.

Still, Obama invested significant energy and optimism in the relationship when he took office in 2009, talking about cooperation and mutual respect while avoiding mention of friendship. He and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, found room for accommodation. Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 and then prime minister for four years, took a harder line toward the United States when he returned to the presidency last year.

President George W. Bush developed warm personal relations with Putin, but they never reached agreements on major issues. By 2008, when Russia went to war with U.S. ally Georgia, the air had turned poisonous.

Just after the war broke out, Stent recalled, Bush and Putin were seated next to each other in Beijing at the Olympic Games ceremonies. They had an acerbic exchange about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, with Bush saying that Putin was “cold as ice,” she said.

Now, Russia watchers expect the two sides to keep talking — with the rhetoric turning sharper and accompanied by growing resentment toward each other.

Biggest loser?

Undoubtedly there will be spirited debate in the weeks ahead about which is the bigger loser. Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a Brookings Institution fellow, suspects that Russia and Putin have more at stake.

The United States has accomplished many of its objectives since the reset began, he said, including achieving Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran and signing the New START agreement in 2010 that cut back on nuclear stockpiles. The countries, however, remain far apart on Syria, and it is unlikely that Russia would change its position no matter how close its relationship with the United States.

“The question of who needs who now has a whole different dynamic,” Pifer said. “Putin wants to be seen as being the head of a superpower. I don’t think Putin minds being disliked in the U.S., but it would matter to him if he was ignored.”

If Obama sees no value in meeting him, Putin could appear irrelevant, Pifer said in a telephone interview and in an op-ed column in the Moscow Times. That’s not the image he wants to project, at home or abroad.

The summit was called off, according to the White House, because there was no sign that any progress would be made on U.S. priorities of missile defense and arms control. Although Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden was an irritant, it was not described as a deciding factor.

Obama apparently saw no point in going to a summit, getting nothing and then returning home to have Republicans who call him soft on Russia pile on the criticism, analysts said.

The administration understands that Russia, which agreed to an embargo on arms for Iran in 2010, is unlikely to do more now, Pifer said.

“On Syria, Russia asks what comes after Assad,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia can’t imagine anything but a dangerous outcome, and so it refuses to back any effort to remove him.

Russia is unlikely to reverse its cooperation on Afghanistan. Fearing that chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into Central Asia, it wants NATO and the United States to succeed in keeping the peace there. “I don’t think the Russians have an incentive to play games with that,” Pifer said.

Lower-level communications

The two sides are expected to keep talking, but at a lower level. That new stage in the relationship will begin Friday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meet in Washington with their U.S. counterparts, John F. Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

“The relationship won’t be completely cut off,” Stent said. “It can’t be. We have to work together on many issues, but Russia won’t have the priority for this White House that it once did.”

History suggests that this rift will be contained, as others have been before. Pifer recalls being a young officer in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1986 — assigned to the arms-control portfolio — when the two countries went through one of their more difficult periods. In a quarrel sparked by spying accusations, the United States had ordered about 50 Soviet diplomats out of the country. Moscow retaliated by withdrawing all Russian employees from jobs at the U.S. Embassy. For six months, until new staff could be found, Pifer added to his duties driving a truck and picking up the weekly food shipments from a Finnish supermarket.

Eventually the dispute blew over and President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to terms. Three years later, the Berlin Wall fell. The rest is history.

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