WASHINGTON – After putting the tense Russian-U.S. relationship on “pause” last year, President Obama and his team have lately been working to get it back on track by quietly arranging a meeting this summer with President Vladimir Putin. The two sides have even begun discussing a trade agreement for the two to sign.
But the bloody political crisis in Ukraine has underscored just how hard it will be to restore constructive ties between Washington and Moscow. While the two sides were facing off this week over the future of the strategically located former Soviet republic, the prospect of renewed summitry appeared problematic. Now with a fragile deal in Kiev, U.S. officials said, a meeting may yet come together.
Obama, who last summer became the first president in more than a half-century to cancel a meeting with his Russian or Soviet counterpart, called Putin on Friday, and they talked for an hour about Ukraine and other points of division like Syria and Iran. U.S. officials characterized the call as surprisingly productive and took it as a sign that despite the friction of recent days, there might be a path forward.
The leaders agreed to focus on carrying out the settlement in Kiev and not relitigate the origins of the political clash, said administration officials who described the conversation on the condition of anonymity.
Obama “was pretty clear we’ll let those disagreements lie there,” said one official, adding that the call “actually was pretty positive.” Another official called it “completely constructive and workmanlike” and “clearly an important signal.”
The future of U.S.-Russia ties, however, has rarely been more uncertain or volatile. Ukraine is just the latest in a series of issues that have strained relations, including asylum for Edward Snowden, the civil war in Syria, differences over arms control and Russia’s domestic crackdown on dissent.
“The challenge we face is that even as Americans and Europeans believe we aren’t engaged in a zero-sum game with Russia, Russia unfortunately is playing a zero-sum game with us,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.