MOSCOW -- U.S. relations with Russia officially settled into a trough this week when President Obama canceled a summit planned for September with Vladimir Putin, an indication that cultivating Russia was no longer worth his time and effort.
“I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backward on those issues, with mixed success,” he told reporters on Friday.
The White House decision to call off the summit marked the end of Obama’s attempt to revive a relationship that by 2008 had reached its lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russian reaction has so far been muted, with officials expressing disappointment but avoiding cataclysmic pronouncements. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, foresaw no immediate crisis. But, he advised, don’t expect a productive relationship any time in the near future.
In the United States, the decision was greeted positively by those who think Obama has gotten as much as he can from Russia and that it’s time to signal displeasure at Moscow’s increasingly repressive behavior and crackdown on civil society.
The pendulum that began a positive shift in 2009 has begun swinging in the opposite direction, said Angela Stent, a Georgetown University scholar who has a book coming out in December on U.S.-Russian relations.
"The U.S. is realizing you can try to improve relations, you can try to reset them," Stent said in a telephone interview, "but you can only go so far considering the country you are dealing with. I am sure Russia thinks the same thing."
The two countries have experienced repeated highs and lows since the Soviet years. Allies during World War II, they turned into bitter foes when the Cold War began in 1948, then began building closer ties after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
They even survived a canceled summit in 1960, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided against meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Soviet Union shot down Gary Powers in a U.S. spy plane over the Urals.
Still, Obama had invested significant energy and optimism in the relationship when he first took office in 2009, talking about cooperation and mutual respect while studiously avoiding mention of friendship. He and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, found room for accommodation. Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 and then prime minister for four years, took a harder line toward the United States when he returned to the presidency last year.
George W. Bush developed warm personal relations with Putin, but they never found deals to make. By 2008, when Russia went to war with U.S. ally Georgia, the air had turned poisonous.
Just after the war broke out, Stent recalled, Bush and Putin were seated next to each other in Beijing at the Olympic Games ceremonies. They had an acerbic exchange about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, with Bush saying that Putin was "cold as ice," she said.
Now, Russia watchers expect the two sides to keep talking — with the rhetoric turning sharper and accompanied by growing resentment at each other.
Undoubtedly there will be spirited debate in the weeks ahead about which is the bigger loser. Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a Brookings Institution fellow, suspects Russia and Putin have more at stake.
The United States has accomplished many of its objectives since the reset began, he said, including achieving Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran and signing the New START agreement in 2010 that cut back on nuclear stockpiles.