U.S.-Russia ties tense as Putin eyes presidency

President Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meet at the latter's country residence home in Novo Ogaryovo, Russia, near Moscow, July 7, 2009.
AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - Two-and-a-half years after the United States launched its much-touted effort to patch up relations with Russia, the once-bitter Cold War foes are at odds about everything from missile defense and Georgia's borders to the deployment of Russia's conventional forces in Europe.

Cooperation is similarly strained in areas that have weathered the worst breakdowns in recent relations between the Obama administration and Moscow, raising worries over U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan and the international alliance against Iran's nuclear program.

The widening divide between the two is occurring as the former communist power undergoes a complicated transition, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin preparing for his likely return to the presidency and the government struggling to deal with anger sparked by evidence of election fraud and manifested in the country's largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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If Russia's government has been weakened domestically, it is still talking tough internationally. And its adoption of an increasingly harder line in recent weeks has created several diplomatic headaches for the U.S.

In one recent example, Putin said Moscow would like to develop cooperation with Washington but harshly criticized U.S. foreign policy, accusing it of unilateralism.

"America doesn't need allies, it only needs vassals," Putin said.

The crowning achievement of President Obama's reset policy occurred in February, when a U.S.-Russian agreement to reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals entered into force. Senate ratification only came after difficult negotiations and over the objections of several leading Republicans, who challenged whether Moscow would adhere to the treaty or use it to challenge unconnected American military programs.

Some feel those fears are now being validated. Even though the "New START" treaty doesn't significantly limit U.S. missile defense plans, President Dmitry Medvedev has threatened to pull Russia out of the accord if the U.S. moves forward with plans to place missile interceptors in Europe. He has also ordered Russia's military to ensure capability to destroy the system's command structure, and warned of stationing strike missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania.

"After being assured that the New START treaty would contribute to the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations, and that the Russian government would not use the treaty against us as blackmail, we are now in a situation where the president of Russia is threatening to deploy ballistic missiles to destroy U.S. missile defense systems in Europe," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lamented before the Senate last week.

McCain also decried Russian attempts to reach out to China and Iran to deepen cooperation against U.S. missile defense plans, and threats to cut off supply routes that are critical for NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

Administration officials concede that they are unsettled by Russia's behavior, but there is little they can do right now. The populist passions of the Russian election season increase the danger of exacerbating disagreements that may only reflect rhetorical bluster.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov angrily accused the West of taking an "immoral" stance toward Syria by pressuring President Bashar Assad while refusing to condemn the "armed extremist groups" trying to oust the Arab strongman. His language echoed the widely discredited claims of Assad, whose government is accused of killing more than 5,000 people in a brutal crackdown on primarily peaceful dissenters.

U.S. officials described Lavrov's comments as "baffling" and "unhelpful," but they may be more destructive than that. As a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia continues to stand in the way of any effort at the global body to condemn Assad's regime and set multilateral sanctions. With the help of China, Russia has already blocked one resolution against Syria and has continued to supply the Assad regime with weapons.

A similar situation exists with Iran. The U.N. nuclear agency revealed secret Iranian experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear weapons — the strongest rejection yet of Tehran's argument that its uranium enrichment activity is purely for energy production. But Russia, which has deep trade and investment ties with Iran, has shielded the Islamic republic from any new global sanctions.

The U.S. sees a growing Russian unwillingness to cooperate seeping into other areas as well. The Obama administration grew so frustrated with Russia's role in the Middle East process in September that it toyed with the idea of disbanding the "Quartet" of Israeli-Palestinian mediators, which also includes the European Union and the U.N.

And Washington finally grew fed up with Moscow's refusal to provide information on its conventional forces in Europe — as required under a 21-year agreement with the West — that it decided last month to no longer share its data in return. Talks have likewise stalled on other elements of a once ambitious U.S.-Russia arms control agenda.

The relationship isn't all bleak and certainly hasn't reached the low point set after the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, when George W. Bush was president.