- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Five years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton playfully presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red “reset button,” a symbol of the Obama administration’s intention to improve ties that had hit a low point during the George W. Bush administration.

Today, the much ballyhooed reset is all but relegated to the history books.

“The reset is officially dead,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.

The reason, according to regional analysts, is that the U.S.-Russia relationship — dented by President Vladimir Putin’s mission to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful place on the world stage — is now at its lowest point since the Cold War.

Tensions between the two sides have only deepened since Mr. Putin defied warnings from the White House by sending Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last month.

The situation appeared to worsen this week amid reports that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had rebuffed an invitation from Moscow to meet face-to-face with Mr. Putin to discuss a U.S. proposal aimed at defusing the tensions in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Moscow is expected only to bristle as President Obama prepares to host interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House on Wednesday. The move may be seen as a direct snub to Russia, which does not recognize the new leaders in Kiev.

Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Putin has become strained by differences over Syria’s civil war, Moscow’s granting political asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward J. Snowden and Mr. Putin’s generally authoritative posture toward human rights.

In his own region, Mr. Putin has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy that is causing alarm among former Soviet republics who worry that Moscow is bent on forcefully keeping them within its sphere of influence — just as it has been attempting to do in Ukraine.

The Obama administration blames Mr. Putin for straining the U.S.-Russia relationship.

“Our bilateral relationship with Russia is hurt by Russia’s actions,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

“We have long fundamentally disagreed with Russia over their continued support for the Assad regime in Syria — and I will note Russia’s hypocrisy when they have long argued against foreign intervention in Syria despite [President Bashar] Assad’s brutal campaign against his own people, yet Russia thinks nothing of military intervention in Ukraine after that country takes bold democratic steps,” she said.

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine prompted Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican writing in Politico, to call for the Obama administration to declare the reset dead.

The Obama administration is in no rush to make such proclamations.

“I don’t think this is a moment to be proclaiming one thing or the other,” Mr. Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week when asked whether he considered the reset to be dead.

Mr. Kerry did acknowledge “profound differences” in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which he said had entered a “different phase.”

Mr. Lavrov had invited Mr. Kerry to visit Russia on Monday to discuss developments in Ukraine.

Mr. Kerry “gave his preliminary consent,” Mr. Lavrov said during a meeting with Mr. Putin that was broadcast on Russian state TV, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Lavrov said that Mr. Kerry had then called “on Saturday and said he would like to postpone it for a while.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Mr. Kerry had made clear to Mr. Lavrov in the phone call that “he would welcome further discussions focused on how to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage” on U.S. proposals.

The postponement of the meeting was a clear sign that the two sides were no closer to an agreement on how to defuse the crisis.

Assessing the reset

U.S.-Russia relations reached a low point in August 2008, when Russian troops invaded neighboring Georgia in support of rebels in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Fewer than six months later, Mr. Bush had left office, and Mr. Obama arrived promising to reset the relationship with Moscow.

Russia paid little price for its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and was able to establish Russian dominance over South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” said Mr. Fontaine, explaining Mr. Putin’s confidence in intervening in Ukraine.

The reset was intended to boost Dmitry Medvedev, who was serving as Russia’s president at the time Mr. Obama came to office, said Temuri Yakobashvili, a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev shared a cordial relationship. The two even famously chowed down on hamburgers at a popular D.C. area restaurant in the summer of 2010.

Hopes for a new dawn in the U.S.-Russia relationship were eclipsed when Mr. Medvedev left office in May 2012 and was replaced by Mr. Putin, who had been waiting in the wings in the role of prime minister.

Ties became strained in December 2012 after Mr. Obama signed into law the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials accused of bribery and corruption. Mr. Putin responded by barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

“The moment Medvedev left office, the reset was over, but no one wants to loudly say that it is over or that it was a failure,” said Mr. Yakobashvili.

The reset did produce some results, including the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which cuts the number of nuclear weapons and launchers deployed by the U.S. and Russia; cooperation from Russia on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan; and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Most recently, the U.S. and Russia have worked together to ensure that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons is destroyed.

“There has always been cooperation and disagreement in the relationship, but the United States and Russia already do a great deal of constructive work together, and can do more,” said Ms. Hayden.

While Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has added another layer of tensions to the relationship, Obama administration officials insist that they don’t see developments in Kiev as a Cold War-style tug of war between Washington and Moscow.

“This is not ‘Rocky IV,’” Mr. Kerry told MSNBC last month.

Yet that is exactly how Mr. Putin sees things, analysts say.

“A new Cold War is already a fact, but people don’t want to recognize it as a fact because they don’t see the exact similarities,” said Mr. Yakobashvili, who has served as Georgia’s deputy prime minister and as its ambassador to the U.S.

‘A new phase of relations’

Mr. Putin, who views the breakup of the Soviet Union as the biggest tragedy of the 20th century, has been very clear about restoring Russia’s glory and that entails extending its sphere of influence, he said.

“That is very much Cold War terminology,” he added.

Mr. Putin has become alarmed about the West’s pull on former Soviet republics he considers to be part of his vision of a Eurasian Union, a Russo-centric version of the European Union, analysts say.

“He is concerned because he sees his vision of Russia’s rightful place in the world deteriorating,” said Steven Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Putin’s determination to keep Russia’s neighbors in its sphere of influence can have catastrophic outcomes, as has been the case with Ukraine.

The Russian president provided the spark for the unrest in Ukraine by offering the government in Kiev a $15 billion bailout in exchange for it shunning a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to accept Mr. Putin’s offer proved to be the kiss of death for his government. Angry protests erupted in Kiev, and Mr. Yanukovych was forced to flee.

Mr. Putin deployed troops into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, prompting the Obama administration to respond with sanctions and visa bans on Russian officials. The U.S. also has suspended its participation in the Group of Eight meetings in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, talks with Moscow on trade and investment agreements, and military-to-military contacts.

“We are entering a new phase of relations with Russia,” said Mr. Fontaine, “one that promises to be more difficult and more confrontational.”

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