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Obama bid for US-Russia reset slips as Cold War iciness recurs

WASHINGTON — If mounting U.S. frustration with Russia wasn't clear enough after President Barack Obama blamed Moscow on Feb. 11 for the starvation of Syrian civilians, this week offered plenty of other signals.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that "an assertive Russia" poses a risk to the United States and aired his anger over damage to national security caused by Edward Snowden, who's in Russia under asylum after exposing classified American spy programs. Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, lawmakers voiced concern that Russia may have violated a nuclear-arms treaty and is undermining U.S. influence in the Middle East.

These public displays of dissatisfaction, almost five years after the Obama administration set out to "reset" ties with Russia, reflect growing U.S. dismay as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks a more prominent international role for his nation and positions it as an alternative to the U.S.

"The bilateral relationship is probably as bad as it's been since the war in Georgia" in 2008, said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "We have fundamentally different views of what drives the world, what drives politics."

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, said "the big reason for concern now is that what we're seeing in Russian politics is pointing more in a direction that could point to greater confrontation."

Putin "is making a strong distinction between Russian values and amoral Western values that are dragging the West and the U.S. down," Hill said. That will translate into "a rather confrontational stance in its neighborhood, depicting any Western or U.S. moves as attempts at subversion, and more broadly, into Russian attempts to block the U.S."

The Russian Foreign Ministry's Twitter feed Thursday quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that the "Western media have launched an information war against Russia, with Cold War-like vernacular widely in use."

The Obama administration's ability to play hardball is limited, though, by its need for Russia to support negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and seeking a political solution to end the civil war in Syria.

In both the U.S. and Russia, popular opinion is hardening. Russians are describing critical Western media coverage of the Winter Olympics as "zloradstvo," or "malicious glee," according to the New Republic magazine.

The critical coverage of the Olympics "just makes things worse, and they're bad enough as it is," said Hill.

While Hill sees "a rise in anti-Americanism in Russia that's translating into a more belligerent tone in foreign policy," Gallup Inc. released a poll yesterday that found Americans gave Putin and Russia the highest unfavorable ratings — 63 percent and 60 percent, respectively — in the past two decades.

American disaffection with Russia has grown since Putin returned himself to the presidency in 2012, the polling company said, and has been fueled by Russia's ban on American adoptions of its orphans, its expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the asylum offer to Snowden, restrictions on gay and lesbian rights, and support for the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Feb. 11 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper repeated U.S. suggestions that Russia may have been behind last week's leak of a recorded phone call in which an American diplomat dismissed the European Union with an expletive and pondered how to blunt Russian influence in Ukraine.

Other sources of tension, U.S. officials and analysts say, include growing competition over Arctic resources and Russia's military modernization, which Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on Feb. 11 that the U.S. "cannot afford to ignore."

Obama's second-term plan to seek further cuts in U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arsenals has been thwarted by Putin's opposition to the U.S. missile defense system being deployed in Europe and by evidence that Russia may be violating a treaty that limits medium-range nuclear missiles

The missile defense system is a "really a big matter of concern," and Russia isn't interested in going beyond reductions required by 2018 under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed early in Obama's first term, according to Vladimir Leontyev, deputy director for security affairs and disarmament in the Russian foreign ministry.

On another dispute, Leontyev told a conference on nuclear weapons policy in Arlington, Va., that the U.S. has questioned whether Russian may be violating the Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing a type of missile banned by the 1987 accord.

Stent, who has just written "The Limits of Partnership," a book examining four recent attempts to reset U.S.-Russia ties, all of which have failed, said Putin is positioning Russia as "the protector of sovereignty and the status quo, presenting it as the alternative model to the United States."

That dynamic was on display this week during a Moscow visit by Egyptian military leader General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Putin endorsed al-Seesi's as-yet undeclared presidential candidacy amid reports that Egypt and Russia are working on greater military cooperation and a $2 billion arms deal bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The U.S., Egypt's largest military supplier since the late President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisers in the 1970s, has slightly reduced weapons sales to Cairo in response to the military's takeover of government.

"We don't endorse a candidate and don't think it's, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt," State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Harf wouldn't comment on whether the U.S. would back a United Nations resolution Russia has drafted on humanitarian aid access to Syria that doesn't include sanctions if the Assad regime fails to comply.

On Feb. 11, after Russia blocked another resolution on humanitarian access that the U.S. had backed, Obama used a White House news conference to accuse Moscow of complicity in the Assad regime's starvation of its own people.

"Russians cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when they are starving civilians, and that it is not just the Syrians that are responsible, the Russians as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution," Obama said at a joint news conference with President Francois Hollande of France.

Lavrov brushed off Obama's comment the next day. "Their resolution is based on a selective approach to the situation and fixing the blame on the government," Lavrov said in a statement posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry. "We insist on focusing on practical efforts, even if it is more difficult to find an agreement than to adopt" U.N. Security Council or General Assembly resolutions, Lavrov said.

A central problem is that the U.S. and France don't know how to handle the Russian government, said a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. While the two countries don't think supporting Assad is in Russia's interests, they also don't know how to make that point heard, the official said.
 

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