A Cold-War Chill? US-Russia Relations Falter over Libya and Syria

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Stormy days lie ahead for US-Russia relations, many say. Progress on issues like missile defense and NATO-Russia relations could suffer serious setbacks if the Syria and Iran crises deteriorate further.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton doffed her diplomatic gloves after Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. Calling the February veto "despicable," she laid at Moscow's feet the "murders" of Syrian "women, children, [and] brave young men."

Not to be outdone, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin railed against the United States for indulging its "bellicose itch" to get involved in other countries' internal affairs. And he vowed that Russia will thwart American designs in the Middle East.

Whatever happened to the "reset," President Obama's ballyhooed reorientation of US-Russia relations to a more cooperative path focused on common interests?

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Russia would say Libya happened - the conflict where the West and the US in particular demonstrated a zeal for intervention that struck at Russia's sense of sovereignty and of what the UN should and shouldn't do. The US would say Syria happened - revealing Russia's revived obstructionist tendencies on the Security Council and demonstrating Russia's determination to protect an old ally at the expense of the Syrian people.

Both countries might say that what happened is this: The common interests that the "reset" was meant to emphasize - arms control, counterterrorism, the global economy - have taken a back seat to awakened geopolitical rivalries and diverging international visions.

Add to this the fact that Mr. Putin is expected to return to Russia's presidency in elections Sunday, bringing with him a blame- the-west perspective for explaining many of Russia's ills.

The result is that stormy days lie ahead for US-Russia relations, many say. Progress on issues like missile defense and NATO-Russia relations is likely to remain stalled - and could suffer serious setbacks if the Syria and Iran crises deteriorate further.

"I foresee a tough year for US-Russia relations," says Andrew Weiss, a former director for Russian affairs on the National Security Council under President Clinton who is now a Russia analyst at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. With little prospect for advances, he adds, the Obama administration is likely to focus on preventing backsliding. "The emphasis will be on ensuring that these fast-moving conflicts don't put the remaining areas of cooperation at risk," he says.

Others say the current frictions demonstrate how relations, despite the efforts of three administrations, have never overcome cold-war mistrusts to progress to a deeper level.

"Under both Clinton and Bush, the US made it look like things were moving forward with Russia by focusing on things that were easier to do and that didn't require sacrifice from either side," says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

"But in both cases, they ran out of ideas on how to work together before crossing a threshold in relations that would have allowed them to weather the differences that remained," he adds. …