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US-Russia Relationship in Holding Pattern


U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russia's President Vladimir Putin before the opening of the first plenary session of the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russia's President Vladimir Putin before the opening of the first plenary session of the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012.

President Barack Obama has made better relations with Russia a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

During the last four years, the so-called “reset” in relations brought concrete results, including a major strategic arms control treaty reducing long-range nuclear weapons.

Robert Legvold of Columbia University said another sign of close U.S.-Russian cooperation was Moscow’s decision to allow American forces to transit through Russia to get in and out of Afghanistan.

“So in order to both maintain the effort that we had in Afghanistan over the last few years, and now to deal with the drawdown and the withdrawal of troops, that facility, that ability to move materiel and men north, is very important,” said Legvold.

Cooperation on Afghanistan

Moscow also has agreed to give the United States access to a Russian military base in Ulyanovsk about 300 kilometers northwest of the border with Kazakhstan. Analysts say that logistics hub will play a major role as U.S. combat forces wind down their presence in Afghanistan in the next two years.

On another issue, analysts say over the past few years, Moscow has toughened its stance on Iran, voting at the United Nations to impose stricter sanctions on Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program - a policy advocated by the United States and other Western nations. Moscow also canceled the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

Stephen Jones from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts said Moscow wants a settlement with Iran because it doesn’t want an unstable situation on the Iranian/Russian border.

“Recently, there has been a statement coming from the foreign ministry that supports any bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran. That’s important. They are not hostile to a resolution of this situation, even if it means the exclusion of Russia on the negotiating table,” said Jones.

Disagreement about Syria

Analysts say that while there have been positive developments on arms control, Afghanistan and Iran, Washington and Moscow remain divided on several key issues. At the top of the list is how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

The Obama administration has called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Moscow is against that and has vetoed several U. N. Security Council resolutions, including those imposing economic sanctions on Syria.

Jones said Moscow could exert some influence on Assad.

“It doesn’t look like at this stage that it is interested in doing so. What Russia really doesn’t want to see is regime change in Syria. It doesn’t want to see Assad deposed because it is very likely that the person who will come in will be supported by the opposition and would be hostile to Russia," said Jones. "Syria is a very good client for arms supplies for Russia. So for Russia, it would be pretty disastrous. And I think that is why they are trying to keep Assad in power.”

Dustup over missile defense shield

Another area of disagreement is the Obama administration’s plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe, a proposal backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Washington and its allies say the shield is designed to protect Europe against a possible missile strike by countries such as Iran. Moscow says the anti-missile system - when deployed - could neutralize its strategic missile force, leaving Russia vulnerable to the West.

“They [the Russians] have tended to exaggerate the extent to which, in their mind, this is really part of a U.S. and NATO effort to degrade the Russian nuclear deterrent. I don’t think that’s the U.S.’s and NATO’s intention. The problem is that it is very hard to assure them on that score,” said Legvold.

Analysts say it will be interesting to see if during his second term, Obama devotes as much energy to the U.S.-Russia relationship as he did during his first administration. Experts say right now he is preoccupied with the crisis in the Middle East, as well as domestic fiscal issues, and the relationship with Moscow is not a top priority.
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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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