Policy threat in Russian arguments

Anne Gearan / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — A poisonous unraveling of U.S. relations with Russia in recent months represents more than the failure of President Barack Obama’s first-term attempt to “reset” badly frayed bilateral relations. It threatens pillars of Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda as well.

From Syria and Iran to North Korea and Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds cards that he can use to help or hurt Obama administration objectives.

Obama badly needs Russian help to get U.S. troops and gear out of landlocked Afghanistan. He also wants Russian cooperation — or at least a quiet agreement not to interfere — on other international fronts.

Putin, however, appears to see little reason to help. Since his election last year to a third term as president, his political stock has risen among many Russians as he has confronted the West, and the United States in particular. The pro-democracy street demonstrations of a year ago have evaporated, leaving the former KGB officer in clear control.

In December, both countries passed punitive laws that capped a year of deteriorating relations. A U.S. law targeting Russia’s human rights record and a tit-for-tat law banning American adoption of Russian children reflected domestic politics and national chauvinism, and they reinforced many of the worst suspicions that each nation holds about the other.

The low point puts Obama in the uncomfortable position of deciding how far to bend to appease Putin, who began his tenure last spring by snubbing Obama’s invitation for an Oval Office visit.

Obama has long been expected to visit Russia this year, although no summit has been scheduled.

“The real question for Putin and Obama is, putting aside the issues on which they are just bound to disagree — like democracy and Syria — what are the issues that matter to them on which they can cooperate?” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The likelihood is that over the next term, for both of them, that is likely to be a shorter list than it was in the past four years.”

Like the United States, Russia holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council.

By saying no, Putin can stymie U.S. goals in matters far beyond his own shores — and far removed from Russia’s long-standing beef with the United States over the latter’s plans to erect a missile defense shield in Europe.