Saturday, February 22, 2014

Amid Fence-Mending, Another U.S.-Russia Rift - NYTimes

Amid Fence-Mending, Another U.S.-Russia Rift

1 Share
WASHINGTON — After putting the tense Russian-American relationship on “pause” last year,President Obama and his team have lately been working to get it back on track by quietly planning a possible meeting this summer with President Vladimir V. Putin. The two sides have even begun discussing a trade agreement for the two to sign.
But the bloody political crisis in Ukraine has underscored just how hard it will be to restore constructive ties between Washington and Moscow. While the two sides were facing off this week over the future of the strategically located former Soviet republic, the prospect of renewed summitry appeared problematic. Now with a fragile deal in Kiev, American officials said, a meeting may yet come together.
Mr. Obama, who last summer became the first president in more than a half-century to cancel a meeting with his Russian or Soviet counterpart, called Mr. Putin on Friday, and they talked for an hour about Ukraine and other points of division like Syria and Iran. American officials characterized the call as surprisingly productive and took it as a sign that despite recent friction, there might be a path forward.
The two leaders agreed to focus on carrying out the settlement in Kiev and not relitigate the origins of the political clash, according to administration officials who described the conversation on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Obama “was pretty clear we’ll let those disagreements lie there,” said one official, adding that the call “actually was pretty positive.” Another official called it “completely constructive and workmanlike” and “clearly an important signal.”
The future of United States-Russia ties, however, has rarely been more uncertain or volatile. Ukraine is just the latest in a series of issues that have strained relations, including asylum for the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, the civil war in Syria, differences over arms control, and Russia’s domestic crackdown on dissent.
With the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the worldwide spotlight that comes with it, some in Washington worry that Mr. Putin will feel free to further tighten the vise on critics at home. And if the Ukrainian deal falls apart again, as many fear it might, Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin could once again find themselves squaring off.
“The challenge we face is that even as Americans and Europeans believe we aren’t engaged in a zero-sum game with Russia, Russia unfortunately is playing a zero-sum game with us,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.
Mr. Obama insisted this week that he does not see his differences with Mr. Putin “as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition.” But the American government was deeply involved in the Ukrainian crisis in a way that convinced Mr. Putin of the opposite. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. talked with President Viktor F. Yanukovych nine times in the past several months, including an hourlong telephone call on Thursday as the government and opposition were negotiating their deal. American officials insisted their interest was in seeing the Ukrainian people make their own choices.
But the Kremlin’s accusations of meddling hang over the White House even as it tries to pick a successor to Ambassador Michael A. McFaul, who is leaving his Moscow post.
One name that has been floated inside the West Wing is John F. Tefft, a recently retired career diplomat. But because he has served as ambassador in Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, three former Soviet republics that have resisted Moscow’s regional dominance, Mr. Tefft is viewed warily by the Kremlin, and Mr. Obama will have to decide whether his selection would be constructive or provocative.
“I think the U.S. is looking for an opportunity to keep the Russia relationship from deteriorating even further,” said Angela E. Stent, head of Russian studies at Georgetown University and author of “The Limits of Partnership,” a book on Russian-American relations since the end of the Cold War. “The Obama reset is over, and the question is: Is it worth trying something new for the next two and a half years?”
The White House has been exploring that very question for the past two months. Russia will host the annual Group of 8 summit meeting in June in Sochi, the scene of what Mr. Putin sees as his Olympic triumph. Since Mr. Obama feels obliged to attend, he and aides began considering whether to have a separate one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin, as is traditional at such events, restoring ties after canceling last September’s visit to Moscow.
Aides said Mr. Obama is not interested in a meeting that simply rehashes disagreements, so the two sides in December began talking about whether there were areas where they could make substantive progress.
Arms control seemed to be out: Moscow has expressed no interest in Mr. Obama’s latest proposals to cut their mutual nuclear arsenals, and recent reports of Russian violations of a Cold War-era treaty have made it harder, if not impossible, to get Senate approval for a new pact.
Likewise, the two sides no longer have as much to talk about in terms of Afghanistan, one area of agreement in the past, because Mr. Obama plans to withdraw most or all American forces from there by the end of the year, making the supply route Russia has provided moot.
And so the Americans and Russians have been discussing one issue of mutual interest: economics. Even as Mr. Obama negotiates sweeping new trade treaties with Europe and Asia, aides have been talking about a separate trade treaty with Russia. Celeste A. Wallander, the president’s Russia adviser, floated ideas in Moscow in December, and Igor Shuvalov, a Russian deputy prime minister, visited Washington the same month for talks with Michael Froman, the president’s trade representative.
More discussions took place on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in January, and Aleksei Ulyukayev, Russia’s minister of economic development, will travel to Washington next week and meet on Wednesday with Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary. “We’re coming to the point where we might have a set of priorities,” one of the administration officials said.
Even though trade has reportedly increased since Russia joined the World Trade Organization and the United States lifted Cold War-era trade restrictions, commerce between the two countries remains a fraction of what either does with China or Europe. But any trade agreement that requires congressional approval could be a hard sell without progress on human rights in Russia.
That makes some specialists wonder whether the trade talk is mainly a way of simply getting the two leaders together. “To what extent are the two governments moving this thing because there’s a real substantive need or desire for it and to what extent are they doing it because they can’t think of anything else to talk about?” asked E. Wayne Merry, a former diplomat who served in Moscow and is now a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
He added, “There’s a recognition that canceling a bilat,” or bilateral meeting, “two years running, that’s something that hasn’t happened before, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.”

No comments:

Post a Comment