After a period of healthier ties following the much-heralded reset, U.S.-Russia relations appear to be deteriorating. Whether it was the war of words between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last December over the flaws in the Russian Duma elections, or the harsh language used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice after Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution last week calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the optimism engendered by the Obama administration's reset with Russia has dissipated.
Nor does the immediate future bode well for "resetting the reset." Putin is expected to reclaim the Russian presidency after next month’s election, and he has not forgotten or forgiven the Obama team's public relations effort back in 2009 to categorize President Dmitry Medvedev as the wave of the future and America's preferred interlocutor. At the same time, Putin and members of his immediate circle, who consistently expressed concerns about the "reset," feel that their doubts have been justified. In their narrative, Russia made many compromises to American preferences over the past few years, including relegating concerns about missile defense to a nonbinding preamble in the New START agreement; agreeing to much stronger sanctions on Iran and suspending a lucrative contract to provide Tehran with an advanced air defense system; and acquiescing to the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone for Libya. But these produced no real quid pro quos for Russian interests. Given the skepticism with which Putin is viewed in the U.S., not only by President Barack Obama but also by all the Republican challengers, there is little chance that, after March, there will be particularly warm and strong personal relations between the U.S. and Russian presidents.
But does this mean that the U.S.-Russia relationship is doomed to fall back to a more confrontational posture, as occurred in 2007 and 2008, when analysts were warning of a "new Cold War"? That depends on several factors.