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Ties with Russia remain strained despite Obama's goal of strengthening relationship

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin skis in the mountain Laura Cross Country and Biathlon Centre near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on January 3, 2014. Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics that start on February 7, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ ALEXEI NIKOLSKYALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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By The Washington Post
Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, 7:06 p.m.

MOSCOW — With mutual trust all but gone, the United States and Russia enter a new year full of challenges that will test whether the world's nuclear giants can salvage their relationship.

The Winter Olympics, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the case of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, turmoil in Ukraine and Syria, and the uncharted consequences of the shale gas boom all threaten to bring new difficulties and irritants.

Things were supposed to be easier by now.

Five years ago this month, the Obama administration took office vowing to repair Washington's tattered relations with Moscow. In a burst of optimism, it set about cultivating a productive relationship with Russia's relatively new and seemingly forward-looking president, Dmitry Medvedev.

That plan hasn't worked out. The White House hadn't counted on the determination of Medvedev's patron and successor, Vladimir Putin, to turn Russia sharply away from integration with the West.

Today, President Obama's approach — the much-vaunted “reset” — has fizzled, unable to deliver on its promise to build new trust between the two countries.

What went wrong? After a 2013 in which the extent of the breach became clear, each country freely blames the other.

Moscow says Washington doesn't heed its opinions —most recently about Ukraine — and violated the spirit of the new relationship by interfering in Russian politics. Washington denies that and points to a steady stream of anti-American pronouncements and actions by Putin's government.

The White House insists that it hasn't given up on Russia, but there is only so much time and attention it can devote to low-reward relationships. Putin, on the other hand, appears to discern a threat in nearly everything the United States does, and it is clear that the collapse of the reset has left little momentum for further cooperation.

The two countries do, in fact, continue to work together on Afghanistan, on space travel, on nuclear security and terrorism, to some extent on Iran and recently even on Syria. Yet there is no agenda on nuclear arms, or Europe's future or Asia's, or global energy policy or the Arctic.

U.S. officials were interviewed for this article on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about the meager gains of the administration's approach to Russia. They acknowledged the difficulty of the relationship but argued that engaging with Moscow is better than the alternative.

Yet the two countries have stuck to a long tradition of talking past each other. The U.S. and Russian systems have large incompatibilities that cause them to repeatedly misread each other.

“Maybe we don't have the analytic ability to judge the capacity of the other side,” said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute for USA and Canada Studies here. “Or maybe we don't care. Maybe we just don't listen to each other.”

U.S. officials say they worry that Putin, who receives much of his information from Russia's Federal Security Service, is not getting a good take on U.S. intentions.

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