The fractured relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin has reached a critical juncture in the conflict over Ukraine, with ties between the two nations more strained than at any time since the Cold War.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year and its support for separatists in Ukraine’s east have soured Obama on Putin and prompted U.S.-led sanctions that have helped push Russia’s economy toward recession.
The confrontation “will continue and could escalate pretty easily,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
The standoff between Obama and Putin complicates efforts to defuse the Ukrainian conflict, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the lead. The U.S. also needs Russia’s help in the Iranian nuclear talks and in trying to thwart Islamic State in the Middle East.
It wasn’t long ago that Obama took a different view, beginning his presidency by offering Russia a “reset” and new era of cooperation. These days, he fulminates that Putin views the world through a “Cold War lens” of the past.
The relationship frayed almost as soon as Putin regained Russia’s presidency in 2012.
Initially, Obama and his aides saw the Russian leader’s return as little more than a routine transition. Instead, Putin’s fears of U.S. and European encroachment intensified with the toppling of a friendly government in Ukraine just as he was facing criticism for taking the Kremlin’s top post for a third term, a former White House aide and Russia scholars say.
“We’re in for a long and troubled relationship that’s going to take a lot of energy to manage,” said Michael McFaul, Obama’s onetime ambassador to Russia and an architect of the administration’s early outreach. “I do not believe it’s possible to pivot back into a second reset.”
The differences between Obama and Putin seem personal. They needle each other publicly, with Obama once comparing the Russian leader to a “bored kid” slouching in the back of the classroom. Putin granted asylum to fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden and lectured Obama on the dangers of American exceptionalism in an opinion article published in the New York Times in September 2013.
The Obama administration didn’t appreciate the change in direction that was coming in 2011 when Putin, who had stepped back from the presidency to become prime minister, decided to run for the office again rather than back the re-election of his ally Dmitry Medvedev, who was nearing the end of his term.
“We underestimated how big a change that was,” said McFaul, now a political science professor at Stanford University. “I briefed the president with the view that there should be continuity since we assumed Putin played a central role in foreign policy.”
McFaul traces the undoing of the reset policy to Putin’s response to street demonstrations against the regime in December 2011 following allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections.
Putin, a former KGB officer, rallied his political coalition with charges that the U.S. government was behind the protests. The Westward-looking urban middle class largely deserted Putin in his presidential bid, making him more dependent on conservative segments of society.
“Had there been no demonstrations against the regime, the U.S.-Russia relationship might have had a different trajectory,” McFaul said. “It was those events that drove how Putin pivoted against the United States.”
Putin saw a hidden U.S. strategy of “regime change” in the street protests, as well as in the advice U.S. and European officials were privately giving to Russians against his campaign for another presidential term, the hostile Western media coverage, and the later ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, according to Hill.
“He is convinced, completely convinced that we are a threat to Russia, that we overthrew Yanukovych, and that we would still like to overthrow him,” Hill said. “He’s trying to teach us a lesson.”
For a period after Obama took office in 2009, there was public warmth. The fallout from Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia was put aside with a promised revamp of the U.S. approach. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart a red reset button to symbolize the hope for a new beginning.
Obama praised Medvedev as a “strong leader, a good man” in a 2010 interview with Russian state television. When Medvedev visited Washington that year, the U.S. president took him out for an informal lunch of hamburgers and French fries.
The outreach showed early promise with successes including a nuclear weapons-reduction agreement and cooperation on Afghanistan supply routes, Iran sanctions and counterterrorism. The U.S. backed Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization and the economic advantages that come with it.
During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, Obama scoffed when Republican candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the U.S.’s “number one geopolitical foe,” caricaturing his opponent as stuck in the Cold War past.
Yet underlying tensions were never resolved, said Peter Rutland, a Russia scholar at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. These originated in Russian leaders' view that the U.S. and its allies are interfering with the country’s interests as the NATO alliance and the EU expanded to include former Soviet satellites.
Ukraine wasn’t an irritant in relations between Russia and the West as long as Yanukovych kept the country in Moscow’s orbit. The emergence of a new regime that looked more toward the EU and the U.S. revived Putin’s fears of encroachment, said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
The seeds of the shift may go back farther, to the Russian leadership’s response to the U.S.-led intervention in Libya. Medvedev chose not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the action and later felt the U.S. went beyond its terms, McFaul said. That undermined Putin’s confidence in Medvedev and may have been critical to Putin’s decision to take back the presidency, he said.
“Putin saw it as a sign of weakness in Medvedev,” McFaul said.
The personal dynamics between Putin and Obama also have been a constant obstacle, Charap said.
“The good rapport between Obama and Medvedev was key to getting things done,” he said. “It’s just harder with Putin.”
Even as he tried to put the U.S.-Russian relationship on new footing, Obama suggested that Putin’s worldview was anachronistic, in public comments before his first trip to Russia, where he was to meet with the then-prime minister.
“Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business,” Obama said.
Obama “can’t seem to hide his disdain for the way Putin views the world,” Charap said. “Sometimes Putin just wants to tell you how angry he is, and that doesn’t induce a working relationship for Obama.”
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