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Sour U.S.-Russia relations threaten Obama’s foreign policy agenda

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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 objectives.

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.”

Limited leverage

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 December.

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.

Downward spiral

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.-
Russian 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 Soviet Union.

“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 60,000 Syrians.

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.”

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