WASHINGTON — Five years ago, the Obama administration sought a “reset” in relations with Russia - but over the past several years, relations between Washington and Moscow have soured.
The so-called “reset” brought concrete results, such as a major strategic arms control treaty reducing the number of long-range weapons.
In another example of cooperation, analysts point to Moscow’s tougher stance on Iran. Russia voted at the United Nations to impose stricter sanctions on Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons policy.
Moscow has also allowed American forces to transit through Russia in and out of Afghanistan - an important step as U.S. combat troops wind down their presence in that country.
And Russia joined the World Trade Organization with the strong backing of the United States.
Analysts say the “reset” was meant to be the first phase in establishing even closer ties between Washington and Moscow. But they say major disagreements have derailed the efforts to begin the second phase - in fact, experts say, relations between Washington and Moscow are deteriorating.
One reason is Russia’s unwavering support for Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad.
Robert Legvold, with Columbia University, said Moscow’s backing is part of a larger set of issues that set the United States and Russia apart.
“The United States has for some time, going back to the Bush administration and including the Obama administration, believed the international community had responsibility when there were egregious human rights violations,” said Legvold. “The Russians, like the Chinese, and for that matter the Indians, are deeply committed to the notion that the outside world ought not to be interfering in these domestic problems, no matter how bad they get for the populations in these areas.”
Differences over arms control
Another area of disagreement is arms control.
Matthew Rojansky, with the Wilson Center, said the United States wants more cuts in long-range ballistic warheads - greater cuts than those imposed by the New START Treaty.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen in the duration of Obama’s second term," Rojansky. "It’s just not something that the Russians are sufficiently interested in, given that the United States is also not prepared to put items the Russians are interested in - like, for example, restrictions on ballistic missile defense or space-based weapons or cyber weapons - on the table."
Snowden still a problem
Another irritant in US-Russia relations, said Robert Legvold, is the case of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor granted temporary asylum by the Russians.
“At the outset, they were not unhappy that Snowden had done what he had done - they were able to use Snowden, and the way the U.S. government responded to him, as a counter to U.S. criticism of their own domestic policies, repression of free speech and a host of things of that kind,” said Legvold. “Putin would have been happier had Snowden moved on and it didn’t become an issue where the U.S. insisted that Russia had to play an important role in turning Snowden over to the U.S.”
Rojansky, from the Wilson Center, said historically, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been driven by the relationship between the two leaders: when leaders distrusted each other, you had bad relations, and vice-versa.
“With Bush and Putin there was sort of too much crisis to crisis, a kind of love-hate [relationship], too much extremes of high and low in their perceptions of one another," Rojansky said. :Whereas Obama and [Dmitry] Medvedev had a very stable, kind of mutual respect going on, that Obama and [Vladimir] Putin simply don’t have. I think there is a cold distrust on both sides and a lack of respect, actually.”
No progress ahead in relations
Rojansky said most of Russia’s concerns and objections are largely driven by Moscow’s national interests - which in some cases go counter to U.S. interests. But Rojansky says despite those differences, the dialogue between the two countries must continue.
“There is no alternative - you have to talk to them. One of the big mistakes that Bush made towards the end of his presidency, was to tell the Russians, say publicly, the Russians don’t understand their own interest, they don’t know what’s good for them. That’s just a way of shutting down dialogue and they are never going to take you seriously after that.”
Many experts expect that for the duration of the Obama administration, U.S.-Russia relations will simply muddle through - with neither President Obama nor President Putin investing a lot in moving the relationship forward.