Russian-American relations broke down during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama hoped that there might be a chance for improved relations with Russia. His national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, and his chief adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, both believed that the opportunity existed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were doubtful. However the latter two took the view that it was worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen?
In April 2009 President Obama met Dimitri Medvedev for the first time at the London G20 conference. The two hit it off, or at least Mr. Obama saw a sympathetic figure in Mr. Medvedev. Both were young lawyers who saw themselves as pragmatists rather than ideologues. According to Peter Baker, “Mr. Obama resolved to do what he could to build up Mr. Medvedev in hopes that he would eventually emerge as the real power.” The Americans pitched the Russians the idea of a new nuclear weapons reduction agreement. The two sides made progress on this topic during the following weeks. The two countries agreed that Russia would allow America to air-lift men and supplies to Afghanistan through Russian airspace. The United States also won Russian agreement for tougher sanctions against Iran, while the Americans facilitated Russian entry into the World Trade Organization.
In March 2011 the United States wanted to join in the air campaign against Libya. This would require a vote by the UN Security Council. Medvedev agreed not to block the vote. Very soon, it became apparent that President Obama had expanded the humanitarian mandate from the UN into a regime-change mission directed at bombing Colonel Ghadaffi out of power. According to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “The Russians felt that they had been played for suckers on Libya. They felt that there had been a bait and switch.” Putin became incensed. Putin himself saw the Libyan intervention as the latest instance of a strand in American foreign policy that ran from Kosovo in the Clinton administration to Iraq in the Bush administration. Not the least of his concerns sprang from the evidence that overturning regimes in Muslim countries led to the triumph of Islamic radicals like the ones Russia has been fighting in Chechnya. Moreover, the Russians have not interfered with the airlift to Afghanistan nor have the reneged on the nuclear arms agreements. Apparently, they feel that a promise is a promise.
By September 2011 it had become apparent that Putin would be returning to the presidency in Spring 2012. American officials speculated on what impact this would have on Russo-American relations. The State Department was not optimistic.
In May 2012, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency of Russia. President Obama sent his national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, to explore relations with the Russian strong-man. Obama may have hoped for a cordial relationship, but Putin did not welcome the initiative. For one thing, Putin blamed Secretary of State Clinton for encouraging the mass street demonstrations that attended his re-election. For another thing, “In Mr. Putin’s view, the United States wanted only to meddle in places where it had no business, fomenting revolutions to install governments friendly to Washington.” An American diplomat recalled that “Putin was very dug in on this idea that we will never have another Libya.” “When are you going to start bombing Syria?” Putin demanded.
Putin took up the matter with President Obama himself at another meeting in Mexico in June 2012. Obama argued that the two countries should co-operate to achieve a negotiated settlement in Syria. [NB: Implicit in this was the idea that Assad would have to go.] Putin refused to agree. A bunch of tit-for-tat harassment followed. The White House came up with a plan for a second “reset”: they would take up a number of suggestions made by the Russians earlier on as the agenda for trying to improve the relationship. The list of things to be addressed were further cuts in nuclear forces, a data-sharing plan to relieve some of the Russian anxiety over American missile defense, and expanded American trade and investment.
After Obama won re-election in November 2012, he sent Donilon to see Putin once again. In June 2013 Obama and Putin met at another G8 conference in Northern Ireland. Putin declined to take up any of the American proposals for a new “reset.” Putin did agree to meet separately with Obama during a conference in St. Petersburg. However, when Obama made a speech in Berlin suggesting a new round of Russo-American nuclear cuts, the Russians did not respond. Soon afterward, they agreed to shelter Edward Snowden, the NSA “leaker” then in flight from American law. Already wondering if the meeting with Putin would be worth having, Obama reacted to the asylum decision by cancelling the meeting. Obama publically belittled Putin as the “bored kid in the back of the classroom.” Later on, during the Ukraine crisis of early 2014, Obama would describe Russia as “just a regional power.”
There are several questions worth considering. First, Vladimir Putin is as Josef Joffe has said, “a nasty son-of-a-bitch.” However, is he just a megalomaniac? Or does Putin have real reasons for obstructing American action in Syria and Ukraine? Looking at the results of President Obama’s foreign policy in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, is it possible that there are many other powerful people at the head of unpopular governments who think that Putin may have a point?
Second, is international relations the same thing as a Chicago Parks and Recreation basketball court? Is trash-talking an opponent a useful way of resolving a conflict or gaining an advantage?
 Peter Baker, “U.S. Feels Chill in Its Relations with Russians,” NYT, 3 September 2013, pp. A1, A8.