From Ukraine to Syria: Obama pokes the Russian bear

The continuation of the Syrian crisis among other issues all promise to create a bigger rift between U.S. and Russia

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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If Saturday’s hockey game in Sochi is any indication, U.S. relations with Russia are very icy and President Barack Obama is poking the Russian bear after years of scratching and dancing around their differences.

Washington’s shift is most evident in Syria where a policy escalation is expected, and in Ukraine, where the U.S. is upping its criticism against the crackdown by the Russian supported government in Kiev.

After a day of fiery protests in Independence square in central Kiev that left hundreds injured and around 25, Washington blasted Moscow’s ally Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, barring 20 senior Ukrainian officials from traveling to the United States, and threatened further measures if the violence continues.

The Ukrainian crisis in Russia’s backyard adds to a very long list of contentious issues between Washington and Moscow, and parallels the transition of their relations from the “reset” in 2009 to a bitter rivalry today.

Whether the topic is adoption, Edward Snowden, arms sales in the Middle East or intelligence sharing, the U.S.-Russia relations have been frosty and diplomatic ties have turned colder in the last three years. Russian President Vladimir

Putin has not visited Washington since Obama took office, and the U.S. President canceled his Moscow stop last fall, and has sent a very low level delegation to the Sochi games.

It is not the cold war given U.S. continues to have the upper hand economically, militarily and diplomatically, but it’s certainly a rivalry, with a more defiant and empowered Putin.

Joyce Karam

Even sports cannot escape this rivalry. The hockey face-off in Sochi ending with an exceptional victory for the American team 3-2, was certainly a thrill for the Olympics.

But the game quickly turned political with the U.S. celebrating the first win since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Obama and Congress congratulated the American team, while national security advisor Susan Rice quipped on twitter “U.S.A, U.S.A, U.S.A”.

The short-lived reset between Moscow and Washington in Obama’s first term, while focused on issues of nuclear disarmament and Russia’s ascension into the World Trade Organization, did not materialize on key challenges in Syria, missile defense, intelligence sharing, and cooperation in Eastern Europe.

In recent weeks, the events in Ukraine, the resignation of U.S. ambassador to Russia “Mr. Nice Guy” Michael McFaul, Pussy Riot activisits’ visit to the United States, Egypt’s Sisi meeting with Putin last week, and the Snowden case, all speak to an atmosphere of confrontation between Washington and Moscow.

It is not the cold war given U.S. continues to have the upper hand economically, militarily and diplomatically, but it’s certainly a rivalry, with a more defiant and empowered Putin.

Escalation in Syria

The post Geneva II conference and the abject failure of 40 international representatives to promote confidence building measures in Syria is ushering in a new phase in U.S. policy towards the conflict. There is a sense of disappointment in Washington over Russia’s inability to deliver any substantive compromise from the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime.

Washington is actively pursuing a full reevaluation of its policy and reconsidering, according to the Wall Street Journal, the options of arming and training the Syrian moderate opposition as well as establishing a no fly zone on the border with Jordan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of “enabling Assad to double down” by providing more arms and political cover at the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. officials do not hide their distrust of the Russian role in Syria, but realize the need to do more to alter the Kremlin’s calculus, and to prove that “Assad cannot win.”

Sources tell Al-Arabiya News that the secret meeting of regional spymasters including Saudi Arabia and UAE and Turkey in Washington last week tackled the need for coordinated regional support to Syria’s rebels among other military covert scenarios. Washington appears to be preparing for the long haul in Syria, and for fierce fighting that could extend over one year.

The continuation of the Syrian crisis, Putin’s support for the government in Ukraine, his push to make inroads in the Middle East with arm sales to Iraq, and the issue of Egypt, all promise to create a bigger rift between U.S. and Russia -- a rift that makes the “Cheeseburger summit” between Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev in 2010 a distant memory, while an even greater conflict seems to be on the horizon.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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