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Opinions vary on state of U.S.-Russia relations

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By Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 24, 2010

The U.S.-Russia "reset" will begin phase two on Wednesday, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with President Obama, almost exactly one year after their last summit meeting, in Moscow.

Opinions vary on how the reset is going.

Those who see Russia as a potentially constructive partner for the West view the administration's policy as a largely successful start to a new warming of ties. The White House says the new START agreement and improved cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran indicate that its strategy is working.

But for those who see Medvedev as little more than a puppet of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a ruthless operator who is simultaneously reasserting Russian dominance over its near abroad while repressing opposition and rule of law at home, the reset has not tackled tough issues while foolishly elevating Russia's status in world affairs.

"It's pretty clear that, whether you like it or not, the U.S.-Russia relationship has significantly improved," said Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes. "There is, however, the serious question of why it was improved and, most important, to what end."

Analysts hope the summit will at least clarify the debate.

"This is where we get to see if the reset is more than the sum of its parts," said Toby Gati, a former National Security Council senior director for Russia.

The Obama administration, Gati said, de-linked difficult issues in the U.S.-Russia relationship to allow progress on what was easier. Now most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked; remaining are such issues as Georgia, missile defense and nuclear technology sharing, where the two countries remain much further apart.

"Now we can find out: Did the reset make a difference on the issues that are more difficult?" Gati said.

Syria, short and sweet

The State Department's two leading Twitterati -- special adviser on innovation Alec J. Ross (@alecjross) and policy planning staff member Jared Cohen (@jaredcohen) -- were in Syria last week. They were leading a delegation of tech companies hoping to, as the Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon put it, "woo President Bashar al-Assad away from his strategic alliance with Iran" with offers of networking equipment, computer software and the like.

But it wasn't all work and no play for Ross and Cohen, who found some time to take in the sights and tell us about it, 140 characters at a time. According to Ross, Cohen challenged the Syrian minister of telecom last Tuesday to a cake-eating contest and called it "Creative Diplomacy." Match that, Tehran!

Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus. Ross was "amused" by the place, but Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that "I'm not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappuccino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus."

Good to know!

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials and Assad himself. . . .

President? Me?

In a light-hearted moment last week at the National Press Club, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah sought to put to rest previously nonexistent rumors that he might seek the nation's highest elected office.

Referring to Shah's meteoric rise to head a major government agency at a relatively young age, National Press Club President Alan Bjerga said, "You worked at the Gates Foundation, you worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as its chief scientist, you are the head of USAID, but for some people in this room that is not enough. . . . Development experts have said the USAID chief position should be elevated to Cabinet status or to a seat on the NSC. Do you agree?"

"I thought you were going a different place with that question," Shah, 37, responded. "In case anybody wants to know, I really wasn't running for president at all."

The remarks got a laugh from the development community practitioners and journalists assembled to hear Shah speak. He addressed Bjerga's actual question by indicating he is satisfied with the seniority and power of his USAID position.


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