WASHINGTON — Foreign policy in President Barack Obama’s first administration was dominated by the so-called ‘reset’ - a policy aimed at improving ties between Washington and Moscow that reached a low point during the last few years of the George W. Bush administration.
The ‘reset’ did bring concrete results, such as a major strategic arms control treaty reducing the number of long-range nuclear weapons on both sides. Moscow also allowed American forces to transit through Russia in and out of Afghanistan. And Russia voted at the United Nations to impose stricter sanctions on Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.
But now, analysts say relations between the two countries are deteriorating again.
U.S.-Russia Relations Deteriorating
Stephen Jones, a Russia expert at Mount Holyoke College said: “It’s clear that relations are pretty sour at the moment and I think this has clearly something to do with Putin’s accession for a third term as president.”
Vladimir Putin was elected president last May, replacing Dmitri Medvedev who did not run. Medvedev is currently Russia’s prime minister.
Rachel Denber, with Human Rights Watch, said: “In my whole 21 years of monitoring human rights in Russia, I have never seen such a concerted crackdown on the whole of civil society.”
Russian Laws Curtail Civil Society
The Russian parliament, dominated by a pro-Putin political party [United Russia], passed a series of laws curtailing human rights. Denber said these include a limit on demonstrations, an expanded definition of treason, increased restrictions on internet content and legislation tightening controls on non-governmental organizations.
The Russian government also expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development - an organization that has helped fund some of the most well-known Russian civil society organizations - such as Golos, Moscow’s only independent vote counting group, and Memorial, one of the country’s leading human rights groups.
Moscow Retaliates for Magnitsky Bill
In the United States, the Congress passed the so-called “Magnitsky Bill” named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail in 2009 after allegedly being tortured for blowing the whistle on the largest tax fraud in Russian history. The congressional legislation places restrictions on the financial activities and denies U.S. visas to Russians implicated in human rights abuses.
Robert Legvold, with Columbia University, said Moscow then retaliated.
“The Russians saw that as a kind of foreign interference in the form of trying Russian citizens, or accusing and then convicting Russian citizens without a trial, arguing that it is for them to decide how to handle the case,” he said. “And the legislators on the Russian side then retaliated, in very large numbers - a high percentage vote - passing legislation saying that Americans could not adopt Russian children.”
In another sign of worsening ties, analysts said the Russians abandoned a 10-year agreement with the U.S. on fighting crime and the drug trade, while Washington pulled out of a joint working group on civil society.
“Reset” Policy in Jeopardy
Many experts, including Robert Legvold, said Putin’s crackdown on civil society is having a negative effect on U.S.-Russia relations.
“So you’ve had a whole series of these steps that really appear to go contrary to the central issues that we should be dealing with: nuclear weapons, proliferation, Iran, the Arab Spring, Afghanistan - the war in Afghanistan - and the like.”
Legvold described U.S.-Russia relations in the next few months as “unpredictable.” He said it will depend on whether the two countries can move away from what he called “the backbiting” and focus on resetting the relationship on the right track.