A cold-war chill? US-Russia relations falter over Libya and Syria.

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.

By , Staff writer

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    US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Feb. 4 in Munich, Germany.
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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. "Now it looks like something similar might be happening under Obama."

If anything, keeping the Washington-Moscow relationship on an even keel is likely to be even harder now, for two key reasons: the expected return of Mr. Putin's nationalist, Russia-can't-trust-the-West perspective to the country's helm; and the conflict in Syria, which will keep Russian-Western differences center stage and will make reaching a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis all the more remote.

Some add herE the fact that russia is a major oil and gas exporter, and so it does not share America's keen interest in keeping down energy prices.

The Obama administration, says Mr. Saunders, a foreign-policy realist, did US-Russia relations no favors by the way it handled last year's Libya Security Council resolution. Russia abstained from that vote, which allowed the resolution to go through.

"The US and its allies went way beyond the scope of that resolution," he says, "ensuring the Russians will probably go a very long time before just abstaining on a resolution like the one on Libya."

He adds, "There's a straight line from there to the votes [in October and February] on Syria" resolutions, which Russia vetoed. "And that line will probably extend to anything [the US and its allies] might try to do in the UN on Iran."

Not everyone foresees an unchecked downward spiral in US-Russia relations, if only because each country will continue to need the other in pursuing some international priorities.

In the coming months and years, the US will need Russia's cooperation on issues ranging from Afghanistan and North Korea to disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation, says Olga Oliker, a senior international security policy analyst at RAND. "We ignore Russia and downgrade it at our own peril," she says.

But she also notes, "The areas where we cooperate are increasingly not going to be at the top of our priority list."

Another factor in bilateral relations will be the US presidential elections later this year. Russia is likely to put off any major decisions with the US until it knows "who's going to be sitting across the table in 2013," says Mr. Weiss. That means cooperation on easier goals like Russia's expected entry into the World Trade Organization this summer and on security for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, for example, but nothing substantive on missile defense.

One place to watch for clues on where the relationship is going will be the Group of Eight summit in Chicago in May, if as expected Mr. Obama and Putin use the gathering to hold a side summit.

Expect the ambience to be "businesslike," Ms. Oliker says – devoid perhaps of the warmth that Obama and outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shared, but also free of the harsh rhetoric that the two countries have lobbed back and forth about Syria in recent weeks.

Russia has "no interest in fighting a proxy war with the US" in Syria, she says, just as the US "has no interest in seeing this escalate."

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