Russia not Obama's 'No. 1 foe,' but Moscow doubts a fresh 'reset'

By Fred Weir

Obama promised 'more flexibility' with Russia after his reelection. But President Putin is pursuing a foreign policy agenda that is increasingly critical of the US.


Many Russians appeared satisfied after waking up Wednesday morning to the news that Barack Obama had been reelected president of the United States. But nobody sounded elated.


The controversial "reset" of relations introduced by President Obama early in his first term has run its course, most Russian experts say, leaving few lasting achievements behind.


And despite Obama's pledge to show the Russians "more flexibility" on the thorny issue of missile defense – captured by an open mic at a meeting in Seoul earlier this year – nobody in Moscow is expressing much hope for a breakthrough in the increasingly acrimonious relationship during Obama's second term.


"We have learned from that failed attempt by Obama to introduce a reset in our relations that there is room for improvement. And there was some, but it was very limited," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, and one of Moscow's premier experts on America-Russia ties.


"Of course [Mitt] Romney's remarks, calling Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the US, alarmed many of us," he says. "But things have deteriorated badly in reality under Obama.... After all this, many of my colleagues and I had already come around to the view that not much would change after the election, regardless of which candidate won.


Mr. Kremeniuk adds: "At this point, we would consider it a good scenario if things don't go badly wrong between us in Obama's second term." 


A September public opinion survey by the state-run VTsIOM public opinion agency found that positive attitudes toward the US has slipped modestly from 59 percent in 2010 to 53 percent today, while negative views have grown from 27 to 32 percent. Assessments of the prospects for better US-Russian relations have fallen more dramatically, from 69 percent two years ago to 53 percent today.


Experts say the reset, which sought to overcome the deep chill that settled over Russia-US relations during the presidency of George W. Bush, had a few solid achievements, but failed to move beyond initial successes to identify and pursue a comprehensive new agenda of cooperation.


Chief among the accomplishments was the signing of the first full-scale nuclear arms reduction treaty, New START, about a year after the reset began. Another major benefit was logged earlier this year when Russia granted the US use of a Volga-region airbase to aid the resupply effort to beleaguered NATO forces in Afghanistan.


But years of dialogue over missile defense appear to have ended in bitter stalemate earlier this year, as NATO went ahead with plans for its own version of a European antimissile shield over Russian objections. Meanwhile, disputes grew over issues like what to do about Syria's civil war and how to handle Iran's alleged nuclear weapons drive.


As anti-Kremlin protests grew in Moscow, authorities blamed the US for encouraging Russia's opposition, and Vladimir Putin, returning to Russia's presidency for a third term, identified a foreign policy agenda that was far more critical of the US than his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, had attempted to pursue.


Though Mr. Putin publicly praised Obama as "a good man" whose intentions are in the right place, and slammed Mr. Romney for his "cold war" mentality, he told an interviewer in September that he doubted the US "military lobby" and conservative government institutions would permit Obama to make any significant changes.


Under Putin's new Kremlin tenure, Moscow has kicked the US Agency for International Development out of Russia for allegedly interfering in the country's domestic affairs, and ended a two-decade-old agreement to cooperate in dismantling former Soviet weapons of mass destruction.


The Kremlin's new approach is to respond to US criticism of Russia's human rights and democracy record by issuing similarly scathing reports on US practice.


In that spirit, Russia's Central Electoral Commission – which has been stung by accusations of mass fraud in Russian polls – on Wednesday demonstratively refused to certify the US presidential election as free or fair.


"The campaign leading up to the election of the US president on Nov. 6, 2012, did not correspond with international standards of electoral processes," the Russian statement reads. "Regarding the principles of universal and equal suffrage, the authenticity and fairness of the voting and the transparency of the election, the process provided by the US authorities was not satisfactory."