Verbal sparring between the US and Russia has taken on an ugly tone lately, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s determination to reclaim the Kremlin in a presidential election tomorrow does not augur well for a fresh start with Washington.
In one recent US-Russian spat, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called “despicable” the Russian veto of a UN resolution backing an Arab League plan for transition of power in Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have brutally attacked demonstrators.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that the Western criticism of the veto verged on “hysteria.”
A Web site based in Russia, Pravda.ru, said this week: “Despicable is Hillary Clinton,” and referred to her as “butch, a trucker-type.”
Serious strains in US-Russian ties date to the start of political turmoil in Russia last year, and Russia watchers said it was unclear whether tomorrow’s presidential election, which Putin is expected to win, and its aftermath, will ease them.
The warming trend under US President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy with Moscow cooled markedly in December last year after Clinton asserted that Russian parliamentary elections were neither fair nor free, drawing accusations from Putin that she had instigated street protests in Russia.
If a similar cloud develops over the results of Russia’s presidential election, with allegations of ballot-stuffing to get Putin back in the Kremlin, the former KGB spy could remain under pressure domestically, especially if street protests against him continue.
That could prompt a US reassessment of ties, said Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
“If you have a regime that is ... very actively detested by a sizable chunk of the population, you build your relationship differently with that regime. Of course, you continue to work on the things that are mutually beneficial ... But how many eggs are you still putting in Putin’s basket?” Aron asked at a forum this week sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Aron thinks US-Russia relations could become “pretty frosty and cold” if Putin returns to the presidency, a job he held from 2000 until 2008.
Putin has helped stoke anti-Americanism as part of his election campaign emphasizing a strong Russia. He has warned the West not to interfere in Syria or Iran, and accused the US of “political engineering” around the world.
Putin might scale back the strong words if he wins, some analysts say.
However, he does not understand that his harsh rhetoric, coming as the US is also going into a presidential election campaign, “just strengthens the hand of those people [in the US] who are critical of cooperation with Russia,” said Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to former US president George W. Bush.
Looking beyond the rhetoric, Putin might be arguing for continuity in foreign policy, former US ambassador to Russia James Collins said. Despite Putin’s criticism of the US missile defense program, for example, he has not ruled out Russian cooperation with it, Collins said.
The Russian attacks on Clinton are short-sighted, but something of a “freebie,” Collins said, because Clinton has let it be known she will step down as secretary of state after Obama’s first term ends in January next year.