Chill in U.S.-Russia Ties Prevails in Washington Talks

Two days after President Barack Obama canceled plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month, their foreign and defense ministers met in Washington today in an effort to bridge differences.

Their agenda, which includes cooperation on Afghanistan and the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, as well as more contentious issues such as human rights, missile defense, and the Syrian conflict, has been overshadowed and perhaps derailed by the spat over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“It’s no secret that we’ve experienced some challenging moments and obviously not just over the Snowden case,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said as he sat beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the State Department.

Lavrov, who cited progress that could have been made at the summit, said the U.S. and Russia “need to work as grown-ups, and this is what we’ll do and this needs to be reciprocal.”

The top diplomats were joined at today’s “two plus two” talks by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The format was designed to take place in a way that permitted real work to get done, said Andrew Weiss, a Russia specialist in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Highlighting Differences

“These were talks that were intended to be about substance and tee up progress, especially on missile defense,” said Weiss, now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group. “Now that these talks are in the spotlight, there may be a propensity for Russia to highlight its differences with the U.S.”

In the remarks before the four officials began closed-door sessions, Lavrov outlined examples of cooperation the Russian side had planned for the summit, including an economic cooperation agreement that would have been adopted before business leaders from both countries and a statement on transparency for missile defenses.

“At least we were prepared to table our proposals to the two presidents and we will do so once the summit meeting takes place,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov also referred to Russia’s strong opposition to “forced solutions” such as the 2011 U.S.-backed military intervention in Libya that toppled President Muammar Qaddafi, a reason Russia has cited for its defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations. Violence in Libya has increased.

Hockey Collisions

Kerry cited the need for cooperation on areas of shared concern such as Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and particularly the war in Syria.

“While Sergei and I do not always agree completely on responsibility for the bloodshed or ways forward, both of us and our countries agree that to avoid institutional collapse and descent into chaos the ultimate answer is a negotiated political solution,” Kerry said.

Noting that both he and Lavrov are old hockey players, Kerry said, “We both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision.”

With Obama publicly dismissing Russia’s tendency to slip back into a “Cold War mentality” and Putin’s spokesman blaming the U.S., analysts such as Dmitri Trenin are forecasting a cold snap, although not a new cold war.

A Counter-Reset

Russia’s granting of asylum to Snowden -- who exposed top-secret NSA surveillance programs -- is the latest chill, causing a break from Obama’s first-term attempt to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations.

“The reset may be followed by something that can be called a counter-reset, a U.S. policy of applying more pressure on Russia,” Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a policy group, wrote on the Carnegie website.

The reset was an attempt to make progress in areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia while continuing work on more difficult issues, such as Obama’s goal of deeper nuclear arms reductions. It was based on practical agreements, not on a shift in the underlying relationship, said Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large to the Soviet Union.

Those agreements included cooperation on supply routes into Afghanistan for NATO and U.S. troops, unity on Iran sanctions, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Once Russia and the U.S. had checked off the list of issues on which they were aligned, only negative elements remained, said Sestanovich, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Summit Not ‘Merited’

After Obama canceled his summit with Putin, saying he’ll still attend the broader Group of 20 meeting Sept. 5-6 in St. Petersburg, White House spokesman Jay Carney made it clear this week that the U.S. wants greater cooperation from Russia.

“We did not see on a range of fronts the kind of sufficient progress on some of the major issues that we’re engaging with the Russians on to merit a summit,” Carney told reporters.

Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Snowden is just one of many issues that have soured a relationship burdened by historical mistrust. Russia’s defense of Syria’s Assad at the United Nations and its insistence on continuing arms sales to his regime have drawn U.S. criticism.

Russia, in turn, was angered by the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya, a major buyer of Soviet arms under Qaddafi. Since then, the U.S. has passed a law banning Russian human-rights violators from entering the country, which Moscow has condemned. Putin’s government retaliated by barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans. In May, the Kremlin publicized the capture of an alleged U.S. spy.

‘Deeply Entrenched’

For the Russians, who want to project great-power status, “the issues under discussion are so fraught,” Weiss said. “The Russian side is so deeply entrenched, and all the signals” on areas where the U.S. would like to cooperate “have been of disagreement.”

Russia’s perspective was underscored by Lavrov’s comments that the two nations “need to work as grown-ups.” Commentators in Russia have described Obama’s summit cancellation as a childish and emotional response.

The U.S. is strongly disillusioned as well, said Sestanovich. Russia analysts such as Trenin attribute Obama’s summit cancellation to domestic politics, particularly pressure from members of Congress that he couldn’t ignore if he wants to advance his domestic legislative priorities.

Pushing ‘Obstreperousness’

Sestanovich said that if that’s so, the Russians are “missing a deeper consensus in the American administration about how unproductive the relationship has become.”

“The Russians may not mull deeply on that,” he said, “but at some point they’re going to have to ask themselves -- have we pushed this obstreperousness and negativity too far?”

If significant progress is to be made on core issues such as missile defense, Syria, or arms reductions, it’s not likely to happen in cabinet-level meetings such as today’s, Weiss said.

“No one will ever get promoted in the Russian system for fixing some of these extraordinarily fraught political problems,” he said. “That’s why summit meetings are so important. If the U.S. and Russia are going to come to a deal on things like missile defense, it’s going to be done by Putin and Obama, and not by their staffs.”

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