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Little Hope for Improved US-Russia Relations, Analysts Say

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012.
FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012.

Recent statements at the United Nations by President Barack Obama and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated things are not well between Washington and Moscow.

President Obama said the international community must urgently address what he called “Russian aggression in Europe” -- a reference to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow denies it is providing. Obama compared Russia’s moves in Ukraine to two other pressing international problems: the outbreak of the Ebola virus and what he called “the brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq.”

For his part, Lavrov accused the United States of pursuing an “arrogant” policy in Ukraine and attempting to -- as he put it -- “distort the truth” about what is happening there.

John Parker, Russia expert at the National Defense University, said relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest point in decades.

“The worst they’ve been for the last 30 to 35 years. We have to go back to the period right after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and also the Soviet shoot-down of the Korean airliner in 1983 to find a period where relations have been so bad,” said Parker.

This wasn’t the case at the beginning of the Obama administration, when the so-called “reset” in relations set a positive tone, culminating in a major strategic arms control treaty reducing the number of long-range nuclear weapons.

Other examples of cooperation included Moscow’s tougher stance on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons policy. And Moscow allowing 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.

Analysts said during the past few years, however, relations have deteriorated.

One reason is Russia’s unwavering support for Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad. Another is Moscow’s decision to grant former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden a three-year residency permit. And finally, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which have triggered economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

Cooperation possible

Stephen Jones, a Russia expert at Mount Holyoke College, said despite the deteriorating relationship, the two sides could cooperate. For example, he pointed to the struggle against the so-called Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

“Here is somewhere where clearly Russia and the United States have common interests in trying to prevent the Islamic State’s spread into other regions,” he said. “Russia must be concerned about this, and what might happen in Central Asia with the rise of this sort of Islamic fundamentalism."

But Matthew Rojansky, an analysts with the Wilson Center, sees little cooperation on that front.

“The whole premise of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s foreign policy is he doesn’t follow anyone, much less America,” he said.

Looking ahead, many experts, including Parker, said the relationship between Washington and Moscow will not change in the next few years.

“Whoever is the next U.S. president is still going to have a lot of problems in dealing with Russia, and likewise Russia with the U.S.,” he said. “So I actually see a fairly prolonged cold warish period ahead of us that is going to extend deep into certainly the first term of whoever follows President Obama in the White House,” said Parker. “And on the other side, of course, there is no sign that Putin is ever going to leave the Kremlin. So on that side, it’s not going to change. Putin is not going to change his political spots.”

Analysts also said there is so much distrust between the two sides that it would prevent any kind of positive movement in the relationship.

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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.