Despite Kremlin’s Signals, U.S. Ties Remain Strained
After Russian Election
MOSCOW — Now that Russia’s presidential campaign is over, the Kremlin signaled on Tuesday that it was prepared for its relationship with Washington to get back to normal, potentially including swift cooperation on containing Iran’s nuclear program amid the prospect of a military strike by Israel.
But senior American officials suggested that it could take some time to get past the strident anti-American rhetoric that characterized Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s politicking in recent months, including his strangely personal allegation that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to stoke political unrest in Russia.
Underscoring the ambivalence in Washington, the Obama administration fiercely debated how to respond to the Russian election, with some officials favoring a strong condemnation of the results. The White House ultimately settled on a tempered statement, not directly congratulating Mr. Putin but saying “the United States looks forward to working with the president-elect.”
As of late Tuesday night in Moscow, President Obama still had not called Mr. Putin to congratulate him. But at an afternoon news conference in Washington, Mr. Obama acknowledged the result, noting that a Group of 8 meeting in May at Camp David would “give me a chance to spend time with Mr. Putin, the new Russian president.”
Mr. Putin, who won a six-year term on Sunday, had said Mrs. Clinton sent a “signal” to demonstrators to begin street actions in Moscow after Russian parliamentary elections in December that observers said were marred by voter fraud. More broadly, the Kremlin asserted a plot in which the United States was financing opposition groups as well as Golos, the only independent election-monitoring organization in Russia, which gathered evidence of irregularities.
In the months since, there have been sharp disagreements over how to handle the violence in Syria, including Russia’s joint veto with China of a Security Council resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Mrs. Clinton recently called those vetoes, at a time when Syrian forces continued to shell civilian neighborhoods, “just despicable.”
Mrs. Clinton spoke by phone on Tuesday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in a call that officials said had a “get back to business” tone. A senior State Department official said they discussed Iran, Syria, the Middle East peace process and the Russian election.
Russia on Tuesday also joined the United States, Britain, China, France and Germany in accepting Iran’s offer to negotiate on its nuclear program at a time and place to be determined, a step American officials said they viewed as very encouraging.
The deep strain in relations between Washington and Moscow had come at a time of numerous pressing international security issues. And just as Russia seems ready to move beyond the recent tough talk, the United States has its own presidential election that could complicate things.
In reacting to Mr. Putin’s victory on Monday, the State Department clearly tried to walk a tightrope. With European observers sharply criticizing the Russian election as unfairly tilted in Mr. Putin’s favor, some officials wanted to strongly condemn the outcome, according to one American official involved in the process and another who was briefed on it.
But there were concerns about alienating Mr. Putin and further jeopardizing ties at a time when the United States is eager for Russia’s cooperation, especially in the Middle East. There was also some sense at the White House that little good could come from a debate over Russia policy, traditionally a divisive topic, during a presidential election year.
Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, pounced quickly, issuing a statement criticizing the Obama administration for being too tepid in its statement on the election.
“What the world witnessed in Russia yesterday was a mockery of the democratic process,” Mr. Romney said. “Instead of stating that it ‘congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections,’ as the Obama administration has done, it should have condemned the flagrant manipulation and media restrictions that marred this election. With the dimming of democracy in Russia, a better label for President Obama’s Russia policy is ‘set back’ rather than ‘reset.’ ”
In the highly coded language of diplomacy, the Obama administration’s statement was hardly a valentine. It pointedly congratulated “the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections,” but not Mr. Putin himself. It endorsed the report by European election observers and urged the Russian government “to conduct an independent, credible investigation of all reported electoral violations.”
In addition, the administration’s statement praised the new political activism by Russian citizens “exercising their constitutional right to free assembly” — a clear reference to the opposition groups that have staged antigovernment protests in Moscow.
But the political situation in Moscow could prove to be a new source of tensions in the countries’ relations.
On Monday night, as the police rounded up the leaders of the latest protest rally, the American ambassador, Michael A. McFaul, posted a message on Twitter: “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin Square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry snapped back at Mr. McFaul, in its own Twitter post: “Police on Pushkin were several times more humane than what we saw in the breakup of the Occupy Wall Street protests, the tent camps in Europe.”
But there were also clear overtures from the Russian government on Tuesday.
“We think a great deal of important, good and useful work has been done in Russian-American relations over the years of Dmitri Medvedev’s and Barack Obama’s presidency,” Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said at a news briefing. “All this must be saved and used as a foundation for the next step.”
A senior administration official said Washington would be looking for concrete proof of Russia’s intentions.
“Privately they have said to us at the highest levels that the change in president will not mean a change in their policy toward the United States,” this official said. “Now we get to test that proposition.”
The official added: “It’s time to translate these diplomatic notes and communications into some policy achievements. For us, we really do need even an incremental success. We need something to show we are moving in a different direction.”
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Steven Lee Myers from Washington.