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No 'reset' in sight amid US-Russia chill

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

There are few hopes in Russia for another "reset" in relations as US President Barack Obama enters his second term, with bilateral disputes growing every month and mutual distrust increasing, analysts say.

Russia has welcomed the appointment of old hand John Kerry as US secretary of state while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held an apparently cordial meeting with Vice President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a security conference at the weekend.

But analysts caution that mistrust runs too deep and disputes are too numerous for Washington and Moscow to make any headway in bringing about the transformation in relations that Obama hoped for when he first came to power in 2009.

"The Kremlin is now turning Russia towards a strategic confrontation with the US," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

In its latest salvo in late January, Russia announced plans for bans on all US meat imports and the termination of a long-standing bilateral drug control agreement.

The US in turn pulled out of a joint working group on civil society. It also said it was "deeply concerned" by Russian draft legislation that would place a national ban on "homosexual propaganda among minors".

The trigger for the standoff was the passing by the United States of a rights bill targeting Russian officials with sanctions over the prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Russia responded with a ban on US adoptions, widely regarded as the toughest piece of anti-US legislation during President Vladimir Putin's 13 years in power.

-- 'A full on systems failure' --

The buzz of the "reset" that Obama launched in 2009 with Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev after nearly a decade of distant ties now seems far off.

"This isn't a reset but a full-on systems failure," Vlast weekly cited a highly placed official in the Russian government as saying.

At the first high-level contact on Saturday between the countries since Obama's second-term inauguration, Biden was conciliatory as he met Lavrov at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Biden told Lavrov he would like to take the countries' relations "back on track", a source in the Russian delegation told Kommersant business daily.

Alexei Pushkov, international relations committee chief at the parliament's lower house, told Vedomosti business daily that a US representative suggested "Let's separate the topic of developing democracy from the broader agenda."

But Obama's own travel schedule is indicative of the state of Russia-US relations -- he appears to have dropped plans for a bilateral visit and will only come when Russia hosts the G20 summit in September.

"It looks like Obama won't come to Russia until the G20 in September since there are a lot of arguments and no topic for a breakthrough is in sight," Pushkov wrote on Twitter on Friday.

The former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently raised hackles in Moscow by accusing Russia of trying to "re-Sovietise" the region, a claim that Putin dismissed as "rubbish".

-- 'Obama is disappointed' --

"The US is very disappointed -- Obama is personally disappointed," Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov told AFP.

"Obama won't come to Moscow because a visit has to give a concrete result and there won't be one. Now there is nothing that could justify this visit."

Russian officials have resorted to rousing anti-American rhetoric against anti-Putin protesters allegedly funded by the US Department of State.

It banned USAID from Russia and ordered non-governmental organisations with international funding to call themselves "foreign agents".

"For Putin now, foreign policy is an instrument for internal politics," Shevtsova told AFP.

Yet while playing the anti-American card at home, Russia has in fact cooperated with the US in international crises such as Iran and North Korea.

But the key sticking point in diplomacy is the conflict in Syria, which has turned into another thorn in the side of bilateral ties.

Washington has denounced Russia's opposition to UN Security Council efforts to reach a global consensus on the need for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit.

Russia still holds strong cards in dealing with the United States but on a dwindling number of international issues, experts say.

"Relations are limited to specific diplomatic cases: on Syria, on Afghanistan and Iran. As a whole, the field of relations is narrowing," said Lukyanov.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130205/no-reset-in-sight-amid-us-russia-chill