U.S.-Russia relationship turns chilly, again


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History of the Hot Line

Fifty years ago this month, the Washington-Moscow Hot Line was established, forged by the heat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It was a useful crisis-management tool during the Cold War, but the circuit hasn’t been used in a crisis mode since 1982, according to declassified sources. More routine voice communications, a sign of better relations, now dominate U.S.-Russian "situations." Pentagon personnel continue to test the circuit hourly to ensure instant availability.

- Michael K. Bohn, a former director of the White House Situation Room, who writes regularly for McClatchy Newspapers. He is a nonfiction author now working on "Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions From Truman to Obama."

The Washington Post

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.

Who loses?

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.

The countries, however, remain far apart on Syria, and it is unlikely Russia would change its position no matter how close its relationship with the United States.

"The question of who needs who now has a whole different dynamic," Pifer said. "Putin wants to be seen as being the head of a superpower. I don’t think Putin minds being disliked in the U.S., but it would matter to him if he was ignored."

If Obama sees no value in meeting him, Putin could appear irrelevant, Pifer said in a telephone interview and in an op-ed column in the Moscow Times. That’s not the image Putin wants to project, at home or abroad.

The summit was called off, according to the White House, because there was no sign that any progress would be made on U.S. priorities of missile defense and arms control. Although Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden was an irritant, it was not described as a deciding factor.

Obama apparently saw no point in going to a summit, getting nothing and then returning home to have Republicans who call him soft on Russia pile on the criticism, analysts said.

The administration understands that Russia, which agreed to an embargo on arms for Iran in 2010, is unlikely to do more now, Pifer said. "On Syria, Russia asks what comes after Assad," he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia can’t imagine anything but a dangerous outcome, and so it refuses to back any effort to remove him.

Russia is unlikely to reverse its cooperation on Afghanistan. Fearing that chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into Central Asia, it wants NATO and the United States to succeed in keeping the peace there. "I don’t think the Russians have an incentive to play games with that," Pifer said.

Low level talks

The two sides are expected to keep talking, but at a lower level. That new stage in the relationship begins Friday when Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, meet in Washington with their U.S. counterparts, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

"The relationship won’t be completely cut off," Stent said. "It can’t be. We have to work together on many issues, but Russia won’t have the priority for this White House that it once did."

History suggests that this rift will be contained, as others have been before. Pifer recalls being a young officer in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1986 — assigned to the arms control portfolio — when the two countries went through one of their more difficult periods.

In a quarrel sparked by spying accusations, the United States had ordered about 50 Soviet diplomats out of the country. Moscow retaliated by withdrawing all Russian employees from jobs at the U.S. Embassy. For six months, until new staff could be found, Pifer found himself driving a truck, picking up the weekly food shipments from a Finnish supermarket among his duties.

Eventually the dispute blew over and President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to terms. Three years later the Berlin Wall fell. The rest is history.

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