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How US-Russian Relations Have Hit Rock Bottom

And why it's not as bad as you think.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Rock, paper, missile

MOSCOW - The “reset” in the Russian-American relationship pushed by Barack Obama at the beginning of his first term is jammed again.

Termination of bilateral agreements, harassment of American NGOs, harsh words – Moscow and Washington have been going head-to-head for months.

On Jan. 30, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dissolved a bilateral agreement signed with the U.S. in 2002 on cooperation in security issues and drug enforcement. The agreement called for the U.S. to finance programs fighting against crime in Russia. It has “exhausted its maximum potential,” said Medvedev.

What this means is that, Russia, which is now a donor country, does no longer need handouts. “We can continue the work without anyone’s help,” said Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Lower House. “We have terminated the third agreement with the U.S. in the last six months. Russia is ending its dependency on the global superpower,” he tweeted.

Moscow’s decision echoes Washington’s announcement on Jan. 25, that it was ending its cooperation in the Russian-American Bilateral Presidential Commission on Civil Society. The U.S. State department has repeatedly denounced the crackdown on civil society since the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin, in May 2012.

In Oct. 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was told by Moscow its services were no longer wanted. In Russia, USAID financed human rights organizations, disabled rights groups, as well as the election watchdog Golos NGO, who was quick to denounce fraud during the December 2011 legislative elections.

In the aftermath of USAID being booted out of Russia, the National Democracy Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) were also forced to close shop, with their Russian employees having to leave the country with their families. They were at risk of being prosecuted under the new Russian Criminal Code’s articles on treason and espionage.

A quota of positive news

Voted in Oct. 2012, these new laws state that individuals “providing financial, technical, advisory or any other assistance to a foreign state or international organization…” could face up to 20 years in prison. After the law was passed, FSB (the KGB’s successor) agents paid a visit to the local heads of these American NGOs. “We work in an increasingly tense atmosphere,” one of them said.

Quick to accuse the U.S. State Department of being behind the protests of the winter of 2011-2012, as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected, he undertook a massive cleanup of Russian NGOs that were financed from abroad. Activists and protest leaders are often described by the Russian media as foreign agents.

The Russian Parliament has been on a roll, passing bills that bring Russia back 100 years – with the return of the “foreign agent” phobia, the stigmatization of homosexuals, and tougher punishments for “treason.” A new law is being considered that would introduce the notion of “blasphemy” in the criminal code, while another would ban Russian journalists holding dual passports from working. Another bill would impose a quota of 70% of positive news in the media.

More than ever, Vladimir Putin is doing his best “Homo sovieticus” impression by showing Russia as a besieged fortress and passing off the opposition as a Washington-supported fifth column.

“Vladimir Putin’s anti-Americanism has similar internal political roots to, for example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s. However, Iran is more problematic for the U.S. than Russia is,” wrote Russian newspaper Vedomosti. In effect, Moscow is “neither a threat nor a priority” for Washington. On the big issues – nuclear Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, missile defense – the old cold war enemies will continue to cooperate. 

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