Despite President Obama's assurances he'd have more flexibility in a second term, relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, probably won't be easy or productive.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama once assured Russian leaders that he'd have more flexibility to deal with missile defense during a second term in office. But now that he has been re-elected, there's little expectation of progress on that or other contentious issues that divide the two countries.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have been rising. The countries have been at odds over Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear program and Russia's crackdown on domestic opposition. U.S. officials are uneasy about what they see as a more assertive foreign policy by Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Russian presidency in May.
Gone is the talk of a "reset" — Obama's policy of improving relations with Moscow after they deteriorated during George W. Bush's presidency. In the few areas where Obama is seeking closer ties, such as trade, he's running into opposition from Congress.
Moscow is undoubtedly pleased that Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney, who had called Russia the No. 1 foe of the United States. A Russian official said Thursday that its government expected Obama to meet his commitment to be more flexible on missile defense.
But it's hard to imagine that happening now.
"Since Putin's return to the presidency, things have become more complicated," said Cliff Kupchan, a Russia analyst with the Eurasia group, who described the current state of relations as functional, but strained.
The reset undoubtedly improved cooperation between Washington and Moscow during the early years of the Obama administration and both sides saw dividends, such as the signing of a nuclear arms control treaty and the U.S. agreeing to Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
During that time, tensions over missile defense had receded following Obama's early move to replace a Bush administration plan for missile defense in eastern Europe. Moscow, which had angrily charged that the Bush era plan could undermine its ability to use long-range nuclear missiles to deter attacks initially, welcomed the change. But more recently, the Kremlin has ramped up its criticism, arguing that the later stages of the Obama plan could also threaten its missiles.
Thus when Obama was overheard in March over an open microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev at an international summit that he would have more flexibility on the issue after the election, it suggested he might be willing to compromise.
But any move by the White House to limit its missile defense plans would provoke cries of appeasement from U.S. Republicans, who retained control of the House of Representatives in Tuesday's election.
Indeed, there is skepticism in Russia that Obama has any flexibility at all.
"American presidents — whether they like it or not — cannot possibly give up this missile defense system. It's like a religion in America," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs.
The missile defense issue likely stands in the way of Obama's goal to negotiate more arms control with Russia, as Moscow has linked the two issues.
And missile defense is far from the only problematic issue. Obama faces pressure to provide stronger support to rebels in Syria's civil war, while Russia backs Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Moscow is also at odds with Western attempts to impose crippling sanctions on Iran in the confrontation over Tehran's uranium enrichment.
Even before Obama begins his second term in January, Congress could further aggravate ties. Obama is pushing to lift Cold-War era trade restrictions that are preventing U.S. companies from enjoying the full benefits of Russia's entry into the WTO. Lawmakers, including many from Obama's Democratic Party, are tying the removal of restrictions to another bill that would target senior Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses with financial sanctions.
If passed, the new legislation could put a spotlight in Washington on Russia's crackdown on opposition, which has intensified since Putin returned as president. The Kremlin has said it would retaliate against the sanctions. That would turn Russia's WTO accession, one of the bright spots of the reset, into a point of contention.
Obama will have to navigate the tensions carefully, because he needs Russian cooperation on some of the stickiest foreign policy issues he is likely to confront. Aside from Syria and Iran, an essential route out of Afghanistan flows through Russia. The United States will rely on Moscow as it moves millions of tons of U.S. equipment ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal.
(AP writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.)