US-Russia ties: Chill over Syria replaces warmth of Obama's 'reset' policy

Obama once touted improved US ties with Russia as a major achievement. But the contentious wrangle over Syria at the UN is threatening to undo the 'reset.'

Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters/File
Michael McFaul speaks in Bishkek, May 4, 2010. McFaul was a leading architect of the administration's "reset" policy focused on improving relations with Russia and helped negotiate a new US-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty. The UN is threatening to undo the "reset" over Syrian tensions.

Remember President Obama’s “reset” of US-Russia relations? It may be time to hit the “alert” button.

The new day in relations between Washington and Moscow, which Mr. Obama has touted as a major foreign-policy achievement of his presidency, is looking more fragile all the time as the two powers take swipes at each other over everything from elections to missile defense.

The latest point of contention in a deepening split is Syria. Russia is using diplomatic wrangling over the Syrian crisis to cudgel the US and its NATO partners over their Libya action this year, and the US in return is accusing Russia of “bombast.”

Things seem to be a long way from where they were in June, when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev cooed to the Financial Times that “No one wishes the reelection of Barack Obama as US president as I do.”

The most recent focal point for an increasingly testy rift was the microphone outside the Security Council’s chambers at the United Nations in New York.

On Thursday, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, stood at the mike and told reporters that Libya, not Syria, was the priority subject for Security Council consideration, “given the fact that we were led to believe by NATO leaders there are zero civilian casualties of their bombing campaign.” Russia wants the council to launch a probe into reports of civilian deaths caused by a NATO bombing campaign that was implemented as part of a plan to protect Libyan civilians from the regime of ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi.

That prompted the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, to follow Ambassador Churkin to the microphone.

“Oh, the bombast and bogus claims,” she said. “Is everyone sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?”

Russia, which holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency through December, surprised council members by proposing a Syria resolution last week. Russia and China vetoed a resolution on Syria in October on grounds that the text offered by European countries laid all the blame for Syria’s violence on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while leaving out any reference to the existence of antigovernment violence, as Assad claims.

Russia’s proposed resolution was greeted cautiously by the US and European council members, who said it did not go far enough in rebuking the regime for violence that the UN estimates has now caused more than 5,000 deaths.

Friday’s double bombings in Damascus that claimed more than 40 lives, and which appeared to target government security and intelligence buildings, seem likely to bolster the Russian and official Syrian view that Syria is facing “terrorist” activity and an intensifying civil conflict.

The US was quick to condemn the bombings, saying in a State Department statement that “there is no justification for terrorism of any kind.”

But the statement also kept the focus on the regime’s violence, adding that “for nine long months the Assad regime has used torture and violence to suppress the aspiration of the Syrian people for peaceful political change.”          

That emphasis did not appear to open the door to UN action that would equally condemn violence from the Assad regime and from opposition forces.

Russia’s Churkin says there probably isn’t time this year to amend his country’s proposed Syria resolution in ways that would satisfy the council’s Western powers (the US, France, and Britain).

But given the turn US-Russia relations are taking, prospects for action in the new year hardly look brighter.

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