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U.S. says Russia 'reset' to last, Putin fuels doubts

Sep 24, 2011, 4:34 p.m.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave to supporters during the United Russia congress in Moscow September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Yekaterina Shtukina/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Saturday the "reset" in relations it has pursued with Russia would remain on track despite a looming leadership reshuffle in Moscow widely expected to return Vladimir Putin to the presidency next year.

The White House made clear that President Barack Obama would press ahead with efforts to repair relations regardless of who takes over in the Kremlin. Analysts said Putin's comeback could complicate -- and possibly slow -- the process of reconciliation between the former Cold War foes.

Putin declared on Saturday that he planned to reclaim the Russian presidency in an election next March that could open the way for the former KGB spy to rule until 2024.

The announcement ended months of speculation over whether he or his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev -- who has forged a close working relationship with Obama -- would run. It also makes it all but certain that Putin will return to office because of his United Russia party's grip on power.

With Putin considered by Washington to be the "Alpha dog" of the ruling "tandem" since yielding the presidency in 2008 and becoming prime minister, his decision did not come as a surprise to the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama's diplomatic outreach to Russia -- which the president declared from the outset to be a centerpiece of his global agenda -- did not depend on "individual personalities" at the top.

"We will continue to build on the progress of the reset whoever serves as the next president of Russia because we believe that it is in the mutual interests of the United States and Russia and the world," Vietor said in statement.

Since taking office in 2009, Obama has made it a foreign policy priority to fix relations with Moscow, which frayed in the final stretch of Putin's presidency when George W. Bush was also nearing the end of his eight-year tenure as U.S. leader.

The "reset" -- as the Obama administration dubbed it -- has yielded a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty and what Washington sees as improved diplomatic cooperation, including help in pressuring Iran over its nuclear program and logistical support for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan.

But U.S. missile defense plans and fallout from the 2008 Russia-Georgia war have remained major irritants.

'DON'T MESS WITH RUSSIA'

Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while the reset could not have proceeded without Putin's blessing, his stridently nationalistic tone -- compared to Medvedev's technocratic approach -- would bring new uncertainty to the relationship.

"Putin's way is security, stability and power -- and 'don't mess with Russia,'" he said. "That doesn't mean the reset disappears the day he takes office. There's too much at stake."

Though the White House sought to play down such concerns, Rojansky predicted that any major diplomatic initiatives could be stalled while the power shift in Moscow is sorted out.

James Goldgeier, a Russia expert at American University in Washington, said the United States and Russia have too much common interest on issues such as global economic recovery and containing China to keep things on hold for long. "There will be a businesslike relationship, but not a warm one," he said.

As prime minister, Putin has occasionally been stridently critical of U.S. policies. He raised eyebrows in Washington last month when he accused the United States of living beyond its means "like a parasite" on the global economy.

Obama has cultivated a relationship with Medvedev -- they are of similar age and temperament and are both lawyers -- but has less-direct dealings with Putin.

"While we have had a very strong working relationship with President Medvedev, it's worth noting that Vladimir Putin was prime minister throughout the reset," Vietor said.

U.S.-Russia relations warmed at first under Putin's presidency. He telephoned Bush to offer condolences -- followed by support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan -- after the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda militants in 2001.

The two developed a close rapport but ties gradually deteriorated. Relations hit what many saw as a post-Cold War low three months after the end of Putin's presidency, when Russia fought a war with pro-Western Georgia.

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