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Why outlook for US-Russia 'reset' looks bearish

Missile defense disputes, mutual suspicion, and US and Russian campaign rhetoric are all breeding acrimony – and the uncertainty is having an economic impact in Russia.

By Correspondent / April 11, 2012

US President Obama (l.) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev shake hands following their bilateral meeting in Seoul, South Korea, last month.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Moscow

Despite the best efforts of President Obama to tamp down controversy, the already troubled US-Russia relationship is looming as a potentially acrimonious foreign policy issue in the coming US presidential election.

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Mr. Obama came into office pledging to "reset" ties between Moscow and Washington after several years of deep chill, and there have been some real accomplishments, including a comprehensive nuclear arms reduction accord, New START, which will slash atomic arsenals on both sides by about a third.

But in recent weeks, the "reset" has begun to look shaky. A longstanding rift between Russia and the US over Pentagon plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe has moved into a troubling phase and an accidental slip involving a hot microphone revealed that President Obama's strategy for dealing with Russia is at sharp odds with that of his likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

At a nuclear security conference in Seoul late last month, journalists overheard a private conversation in which Obama asked outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to put off the expected angry clash over missile defense until after he's safely reelected in November, when he will have "more flexibility" to find common ground.                           .

Mr. Romney pounced, not merely at the appearance of secret diplomacy by Obama, but seemingly at Russia itself.

"[Russia] is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed," Romney said in an interview with CNN. "The idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he's not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming."

While Romney later walked back those remarks, allowing that Russia is an "opponent" rather than an enemy of the US, the battle lines are clearly drawn. On one side is a Republican challenger who sees the "reset" as unjustifiable coddling of a hostile and authoritarian Russian regime, soon to grow harsher with the Kremlin return of foreign policy hard-liner Vladimir Putin.

On the other side is Obama, who advocates a "dual track" relationship, in which Washington conducts business-as-usual with Moscow on big strategic, political, and economic matters and expresses its criticisms of Russia's track record on democracy and human rights through other channels.

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