With Dmitry Medvedev at the helm, President Obama's "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations proceeded like clockwork. But relations have fringed since Vladimir Putin re-assumed power last year. Neither country is willing to compromise on a number of complicated international issues.
Latent tension has surfaced recently in the wake of civil war in Syria and Edward Snowden's attempts at asylum. The U.S. has been working halfheartedly to repair this relationship without jeopardizing its international interests. But the U.S. is trying nonetheless.
Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, is currently stuck at a Russian airport. The plan was to funnel him to a Latin American country, but this has not been as easy as anticipated. In response to rumors that the fugitive was aboard, Europe forced Bolivian President Evo Morales's private jet to land in order to conduct a search, an international fiasco. Snowden has applied for asylum in over 20 countries. Only left-wing Latin American countries have responded favorably to his requests.
While Putin is less than enthusiastic about the fugitive's visit, the nation's leader feels obliged to protect him. However, Putin will only grant Snowden asylum under one condition: that "He should stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners ... no matter how strange this may sound coming from me."
Some speculate that this is a valuable act of diplomacy. Yet, in context, this is a very small gesture. Russia is unwilling to hand the 30-year-old whistleblower over to the United States. The U.S. is unhappy about this.
Russia does not want to be bullied into submission. Sergei Lavrov is upset with assertive U.S. demands for extradition. According to FOX, Lavrov countered: "We consider the attempts to accuse Russia of violation of U.S. laws and even some sort of conspiracy, which on top of all that are accompanied by threats, as absolutely ungrounded and unacceptable."
Russia and the U.S. have no extradition treaty. Obama claims that the U.S. will not pursue Snowden at any cost, especially if the hunt means rattling already-shaky relations with Russia. However, Obama is "hopeful" the Russian government will "make decisions based on the normal procedures regarding international travel and normal interactions that law enforcement have."
While Russia is unwilling to give Snowden away, there is a chance he will be intercepted en route to one of the anticipative Latin American countries.
Both are acutely aware of the strained relationship and are taking tiny steps to improve them. However, both seem unwilling to step up with meaningful actions.
Syria is another of several issues currently poisoning the U.S.-Russian relationship. The United States desires regime change in Syria, ousting callous dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration recently disclosed a plan to deliver arms to the opposition in the wake of information regarding al-Assad's use of chemical weapons on civilians. Although, ahem, it appears that the United States had decided to interfere long before this "sudden" announcement.
Nonetheless, involvement in Syria is viewed as a humanitarian gesture. Nearly 100,000 lives have been lost in the conflict. Russia, on the other hand, has been supplying military aid to the Syrian dictator. The West views this as the inhumane support of a malicious regime.
However, Russia questions the consequences of the West's intervention. In an interview with the Atlantic, former U.S. ambassador Steven Pifer said, "I think they [Russia] also have a legitimate question, which is: If Assad goes, what comes in behind him? And I'm not sure we in Washington have a good answer for that question."
Although the countries struggled to see eye to eye at the G8 conference, they want to try again. According to John Kerry, Russia and the U.S. have agreed to hold peace talks on the issue of Syria "soon" — sometime after August
Early in Obama's tenure, a number of "simpler" issues were resolved. A new START treaty was signed in 2010. The fresher issues are a bit trickier to resolve. Russia aligns itself with countries the U.S. has seen recent conflict with — particularly Syria and Iran. The nuclear missile shield implementation appears to violate Russia's "turf" in Eastern Europe. The Magnitsy Act is yet another problem plaguing diplomacy.
Obama and Putin have been using soothing rhetoric to move the U.S.-Russian relationship forward. According to Voice of America, the president wants to negotiate greater mutual reductions in nuclear arms. In the context of Syria, Iran, Snowden, etc., it seems like a step in the right direction. These are all really tough issues that neither country is willing to budge on. Obama wants to attempt to smooth over the relationship with a tactic that has been more successful in the past. They may be politically unrealistic and fail to address the most pressing issues, but the insignificant exertions have symbolic, historical value. Thus, a new treaty could still be beneficial.
The two former Cold War foes appear more eager to point fingers than to repair relations. They are timidly sticking their feet into the water. For now, Russia is content taunting the world's supreme power and sticking to its guns when U.S. meddles with the affairs of their allies. A perplexing interwoven history and conflicting interests complicate attempts at diplomacy. But these former adversaries are also just super stubborn.