As Putin rises again, will the US-Russia 'reset' of ties hold?

Vladimir Putin's return to center stage has sharpened criticism by American critics of the US-Russia 'reset' that improved relations. US critics see an effort to revive a Soviet-style rivalry.

By , Correspondent

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    Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks on while chairing a meeting with activists of the All-Russian People's Front in Moscow on Wednesday. Prominent Republicans in the United States are warning that the US should do more to hinder Russia's global influence.
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Russia's foreign policy community is watching with growing nervousness as leading Republicans in the US, including at least one top contender for the party's presidential nomination, turn their ire against Barack Obama's already troubled "reset" in US-Russian relations, which the Kremlin sees as vital to its future plans for repairing Russian influence in the world.

Republicans have been critical all along of Mr. Obama's policy of building strong, practical relations with Moscow while soft-peddling US disapproval of Kremlin power abuses and human rights violations. But as recently as last December, more than a dozen Republican senators joined Democrats to win the needed two-thirds Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms reduction accord, which was understood in Moscow as a sign that pragmatism would always prevail in Washington.

Now, Russian experts do not seem so sure.

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Since former president Vladimir Putin decided to shoulder aside his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and seek a fresh term as Russia's supreme leader, the tone of discussion about Russia in the US has grown much harsher, many note.

Mr. Putin's recently publicized plan to establish a "Eurasian Union" – a strong economic, and potentially political, alliance of former Soviet states – has rekindled fears among many in the West that Russia's strategic goal is to bring back the USSR and return to its historic rivalry with the US.

"We had hoped that the reset with the US might help Russia move into a friendlier, closer relationship with the West, but that seems to be fading fast," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Now it seems the general opinion in the US is that Russia is fast becoming an authoritarian state with the scarecrow figure of Putin as its next president. It's all starting to feel a bit hopeless."

In a Washington Post interview earlier this month, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, often seen as moderate, is quoted as saying that Putin "dreams of rebuilding the Russian empire." Obama's reset of relations "has to end ... we have to show strength," Mr. Romney added.

Reining in Russian ambitions?

At a Washington conference Tuesday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner slammed Russia's "use of old tools and old thinking" as an attempt "to restore Soviet-style power and influence," and called for tougher measures to rein in Russian ambitions. At the same meeting, Garry Kasparov, a leader of the banned Other Russia opposition movement, urged Americans to heed Ronald Reagan's advice and treat Putin's Russia as an "evil empire" beyond the pale of civilized nations.

The current cold war-style spat between Moscow and Washington over the suspicious death of Sergei Magnitsky, an anticorruption lawyer who died after being denied medical treatment in a Russian remand prison two years ago, clearly illustrates the reasons Moscow prefers Obama to any Republican who might come into the White House.

A bill currently before the US Senate, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, and heavily supported by Republicans, would impose tough visa restrictions and financial penalties on a list of Russian officials deemed to be implicated in his fate.

But the US State Department has moved to preempt the bill by issuing its own "secret" list of proscribed officials, without imposing any financial sanctions, and connecting it with global human rights policies rather than a measure specifically targeted at Russia. Last weekend Moscow announced its own list of US citizens allegedly implicated in human rights abuses, who would be denied entry to Russia.

"On the surface it looks like a bad dispute, but actually we see the actions of the Obama administration as proof that it is committed to the reset," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential Moscow think tank. "The Senate bill is purely anti-Russian, and for the time being at least, Obama has managed to blunt this. It's greatly appreciated in Moscow.... We know that if any of the current Republican presidential nominees makes it to the White House, things will go very badly for the US-Russian relationship."

Apprehensions that Putin is an anti-Western hardliner who will reverse the more liberal foreign policies of Mr. Medvedev are greatly exaggerated, he adds.

"Putin was involved with the reset from the very beginning. In fact, it would be weird to think that any major policy could have been developed in Moscow over the past four years without his leadership," Mr. Suslov says.

"And Putin is not, by nature, an anti-Western ideologue. He understands the benefits of maintaining good relations with the US. Whatever happens in Washington, what you will see on the Russian side in the coming years under Putin is mostly continuity," he adds.

The reset has delivered

Russian analysts argue that the reset has so far delivered quite a few benefits, and if the next US president abandons it the world will become a more dangerous place. Besides the START deal, which slashed nuclear arsenals on both sides and installed a system for mutual verification, they point to greatly improved Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.

A Russian-approved "northern corridor" through former Soviet territory is now used to deliver almost half of all supplies reaching embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan, and stepped up anti-drug collaboration between Moscow and the US may finally be making a dent in the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan to the West via pipelines through former Soviet territory, experts say.

"The reset was a very good idea, but it's reaching its limits," says Gennady Yevstafyev, an independent foreign policy expert. "And, unfortunately, no one in Russia is optimistic about the prospect of Republicans coming to power in Washington next year."

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