After recent foreign policy scandals, including Snowden's escape to Moscow, U.S.-Russian relations have hit their lowest point during Obama's presidency so far. Can they get any worse?

Photo: Reuters

Even before U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland earlier this month, the two leaders were involved in an awkward standoff. Putin wanted to work out in the resort's gym, but Obama had already booked it, and neither wanted to share. The Russians backed down with a characteristic Putin twist, saying that their president would go for a swim in frigid Lough Erne instead.

When they did finally meet, the two leaders said they would work to set up peace talks on Syria, despite their differing positions. However, many reports focused on their uncomfortable, aloof body language rather than the statement, which did not mention their disagreement over the preconditions for those peace talks. Obama and Putin's strained meeting at Enniskillen was indicative of the tense relations between their countries. After several recent foreign policy scandals, U.S.-Russian relations have hit their lowest point during Obama's presidency so far. Will they get better? Can they get any worse? Russian analysts are conflicted.

Snowden and Magnitsky

The latest event to spark talk of a “new Cold War” was former N.S.A. employee Edward Snowden's escape from Hong Kong to Moscow. The move led to a flurry of backhanded statements and outright denunciations by officials in both countries. But according to pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, the back-and-forth shouldn't significantly affect U.S.-Russian relations since Russia has no legal obligation to extradite Snowden and “no one seriously expects that it will.”

A much more damaging episode was last December’s passage by the U.S. government of the Magnitsky Act and Russia's tit-for-tat adoption ban. The chill left by this ideological battle will continue to linger, according to liberal analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, “This will be a constant annoyance. These kinds of things always create obstacles for growth of relations,” Pavlovsky said.

Reduction vs. reckoning 

More conflict has come in the arena of arms treaties. Last week, almost immediately after Obama called for another set of negotiations to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads by one-third, U.S. intelligence officials came out with allegations that Russia is violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing missiles that actually have a range of under 5,500 kilometers. 

“There needs to be a reckoning about the pervasive history of material Russian violations of major arms-control agreements,” wrote former George W. Bush administration officials John Bolton and Paula DeSutter in a piece appearing in Foreign Policy. However, Obama has not picked up on Congress's demands to confront the Russians over the issue. 

Markov predicted that Russia will soon leave the INF Treaty in order to build up its medium-range nuclear deterrent, since unlike the United States, it has a strategic need for such missiles. Pavlovsky, on the other hand, said Russian politicians are not likely to take any bold action in the area of arms control. The Kremlin won't leave the treaty without provocation, but it may do so as an answer to an action by the United States or NATO, Pavlovsky predicted. 

Further arms reduction talks are always possible, he added, depending on what Moscow is offered in exchange.

Syrian excuse

Finally, despite the tense talks in Northern Ireland, neither analyst views the Syrian conflict as a major detriment to U.S.-Russian relations. Obama has displayed a reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria at various points, and Pavlovsky said that Putin's opposition to U.S. intervention actually gives the American president a stronger excuse to avoid increased involvement.

Now that the United States has decided to arm Syrian rebels, Russia may sell the Assad regime the S-300 missiles it has long been holding as a bargaining chip, but only if the sale doesn't upset the balance of power in the region. If the U.S. supplies the rebels with heavy arms, then the sale will go through, predicted Markov.

Better or worse?

Any improvement in relations faces many obstacles. As has often been noted, the United States and Russia lack shared vital interests. Furthermore, Russia’s latest Foreign Policy Concept, approved by Putin in 2013, dictates less cooperation with NATO and maintaining a political distance from the United States.

Pavlovsky said that relations will likely get worse thanks to the ambiguity and unpredictability of the Kremlin's foreign policy and the strength of anti-Russia groups in the United States.

“The Magnitsky law showed that an active minority can in this situation create serious problems in relations. I think this will continue in the future,” Pavlovsky said.

He added, though, that Russia's chairmanship of the G20 this year will limit the worsening in relations and “keep our anti-Americanism on a short leash.”

Markov, however, said that now that Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital founder who spearheaded the Magnitsky Act, is focusing his efforts on Europe, the United States and Russia can work to improve relations. Both countries are sick of high-level disagreements trickling down to hinder mundane academic and economic cooperation.

“First, relations have gotten too bad, and second, there is potential for them to get better,” he said.

According to Markov, Obama and Putin respect each other and simply haven't found an issue of mutual agreement on which to base better relations. In other words, they haven't yet found a “gym they can share,” he said.