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Ukraine crisis adds strain to US-Russia relations

Obama working on improving ties with Putin

WASHINGTON — After putting the tense Russian-US relationship on “pause” last year, President Obama and his team have lately been working to get it back on track by quietly arranging a meeting this summer with President Vladimir Putin. The two sides have even begun discussing a trade agreement for the two to sign.

But the bloody political crisis in Ukraine has underscored just how hard it will be to restore constructive ties between Washington and Moscow. While the two sides were facing off this week over the future of the strategically located former Soviet republic, the prospect of renewed summitry appeared problematic. Now with a fragile deal in Kiev, US officials said, a meeting may yet come together.

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Obama, who last summer became the first president in more than a half-century to cancel a meeting with his Russian or Soviet counterpart, called Putin on Friday, and they talked for an hour about Ukraine and other points of division like Syria and Iran. US officials characterized the call as surprisingly productive and took it as a sign that despite the friction of recent days, there might be a path forward.

The two leaders agreed to focus on carrying out the settlement in Kiev and not relitigate the origins of the political clash, according to administration officials who described the conversation on the condition of anonymity.

Obama “was pretty clear we’ll let those disagreements lie there,” said one official, adding that the call “actually was pretty positive.” Another official called it “completely constructive and workmanlike” and “clearly an important signal.”

The future of US-Russia ties, however, has rarely been more uncertain or volatile. Ukraine is just the latest in a series of issues that have strained relations, including asylum for Edward J. Snowden, the civil war in Syria, differences over arms control, and Russia’s domestic crackdown on dissent.

With the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the spotlight that comes with it, some in Washington worry that Putin will feel free to further tighten the vise on critics at home. And if the Ukrainian deal falls apart again, as many fear it might, Obama and Putin could once again find themselves squaring off.

“The challenge we face is that even as Americans and Europeans believe we aren’t engaged in a zero-sum game with Russia, Russia unfortunately is playing a zero-sum game with us,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

He noted that it was the prospect of Ukraine’s moving closer to the West that provoked Putin.

Indeed, the US government was deeply involved in the Ukrainian crisis. Vice President Joe Biden talked with President Viktor Yanukovych nine times in the past several months, including an hourlong telephone call Thursday as the government and opposition were negotiating their deal. US officials insisted their interest was in seeing the Ukrainian people make their own choices.

But the Kremlin did not see it that way and in general views US involvement in Russia’s backyard as interference. That dynamic hangs over the White House even as it tries to pick a successor to Ambassador Michael A. McFaul, who is leaving his Moscow post.

One name that has been floated inside the West Wing is John F. Tefft, a recently retired career diplomat. But because he has served as ambassador in Lithuania, Georgia, and Ukraine, three former Soviet republics that have resisted Moscow’s regional dominance, Tefft is viewed warily by the Kremlin, and Obama will have to decide whether his selection would be constructive or provocative.

“I think the US is looking for an opportunity to keep the Russia relationship from deteriorating even further,” said Angela E. Stent, head of Russian studies at Georgetown University and author of “The Limits of Partnership,” a book on Russian-US relations since the end of the Cold War. “The Obama reset is over, and the question is: Is it worth trying something new for the next 2½ years?”

The White House has been exploring that very question for the past two months.

Russia will host the annual Group of 8 summit meeting in June in Sochi, the scene of what Putin sees as his Olympic triumph. Because Obama feels obliged to attend, he and aides began considering whether to have a separate one-on-one meeting with Putin, as is traditional at such events, restoring ties after canceling last September’s visit to Moscow.

Aides said Obama is not interested in a meeting that simply rehashes disagreements, so the two sides in December began talking about whether there were areas where they could make substantive progress.

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