When writing about tensions between the U.S. and Russia, it’s all too tempting to choose a headline that brings to mind the Cold War. I could have gone for, “New cold front hits U.S.-Russian relations”, “U.S.-Russia relationship enters deep freeze”, or “The Cold War is over, but it still feels frosty!” Yet, in doing so, I think I would not have demonstrated personal creativity so much as a dependence on overused journalistic metaphors. Instead, I’m going to go the smart Alec route and tell you to come up with your own headline.
All kidding aside, relations between the U.S. and Russia do appear to be on the downswing, although they may not have reached an all-time nadir. (Please note my impressive use of the word “nadir”, which is a much better testament to my creativity than a corny headline.) President Obama just canceled a planned bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and he has decided not to meet with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 gathering in St. Petersburg.
Oh, Barack and Vladimir! Where did things go wrong? Could this be about Russia’s continued refusal to drop support, material and otherwise, for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Was the locking up of Pussy Riot one step too far for the civil liberties loving Americans? Is Moscow totally miffed about the fact that the U.S. spied on its president during the G20 summit in 2009?
Of course, the immediate strain on this relationship is Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden one year of asylum within its borders, but U.S. officials have also indicated that the possibility of canceling was on the table before this most recent tiff. Even on a personal level, the two president just don’t see to get along well. Perhaps the most famous example came when Obama attempted a joke during a bilateral news conference and Putin chose not to play along, leaving the “leader of the free world” in an awkward position.
Things were a lot better with the previous Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The world watched as he and Obama posed for photos with Silvio Berlusconi, bonded over greasy American food at Ray’s Hell Burger (Arlington shout out!), and were even caught whispering sweet nothings to each other on an open mic – and by sweet nothings I mean nothing that they wanted the press to hear. The congenial personal relationship seemed to contribute to a better political relationship between the two governments, even if Putin was still pulling the strings behind the scenes.
However, since Putin became president again last year, things have been particularly bad. The Russian legislature (Duma) has passed laws banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children and restricting gay rights, and then there is this business with Snowden. This is not to say that things were never troublesome during Medvedev’s tenure, but they do seem to be getting worse recently.
Still, I don’t find any of this to be particularly surprising. President Obama’s much heralded attempt at a “reset” in Russian relations has been, at best, minimally successful. We could attribute this to the fact that the two nation’s long-term geopolitical interests are always going to conflict, or we could blame it on Vladimir Putin’s fairly obvious narcissism. (Just check out this picture.) However, the fact of the matter is that the reset was doomed from the start because it never actually started.
Back in March 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in Geneva and announced the Obama administration’s intent to reset relations with Moscow. She presented Lavrov with a symbolic red button that was labeled “reset” in English and “peregruzka” in Russian. They both pushed the button together to signal their desire to improve relations.
Unfortunately, when Clinton asked Lavrov if her staff had gotten the Russian translation correct, he responded, “You got it wrong.” In fact, “peregruzka” actually means either “overloaded” or “overcharged” in Russian. The two laughed about the mistake, but the media had a field day with it. Did the mistranslation give the Russians the loophole they needed to get out of a true reset? Perhaps not, but the gaffe does seem to be symbolic of the failed attempt by the Obama administration to break through when it comes to Russia.