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More than Snowden dividing US, Russia

08 August 2013, 13:34

Washington — How do US leaders feel about Russia's behaviour? Not angry, just very "disappointed".

Over and again as they try to patch up troubled relations, Obama administration officials end up reaching for that word that doleful parents use to scold a wayward teenager.

The latest disappointment — Russia's embrace of a fugitive who leaked US secrets — pushed President Barack Obama to cancel a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month.

Moscow's willingness to harbour National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is an example of the kinds of "underlying challenges" that keep getting in the way of his efforts to ease tensions between the former Cold War rivals, Obama says.

Some of the other issues frustrating US-Russian relations:


The two nations are at odds over the civil war. Russia has shielded Syrian President Bashar Assad from international sanctions and provided him weapons, despite an international outcry.

The US says Russia's support is allowing Assad to cling to power despite more than two years of violence which, according to United Nations estimates, already has killed 100 000 of his people.

The US and Russia have agreed on the need for talks between Assad and the rebels in hopes of ending the war, and Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have launched a joint initiative to try to get both sides to the negotiating table. The US would like to see Russia do more to force Assad's hand. Kerry and Lavrov are to meet on Friday in Washington.

Missile defence

Russians have a long-standing problem with the US missile defence system planned for Europe, dating back to the Reagan administration's disputes with the Soviet Union. The Russians see the system as a threat to the viability of their own nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. American officials have always maintained that the missile defences are meant to protect Nato allies and counter any threat from Iran.

Obama was denounced by Republican critics when in March 2012 he was caught, unaware that he was speaking into an open microphone, assuring Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on the issue once re-elected. Russia complains there's been little sign of movement on missile defence since Election Day.

Human rights

Americans object to the way Russian leaders have tried to silence critical voices.

The White House said it was "deeply disappointed and concerned" when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges last month. A colourful blogger turned protest leader, Navalny challenged the Kremlin by exposing corruption, mocking Russian leaders and running for mayor of Moscow.

In April, the US imposed financial sanctions on 18 Russians over human rights violations. The sanctions were sparked by the death in prison of a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who had accused police and officials of stealing $230m in tax rebates. Officials accused of profiting from the scheme or persecuting Magnitsky were hit with sanctions.

US leaders joined musicians and free speech advocates around the globe in denouncing the imprisonment last year of members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. The three women were convicted of hooliganism after staging an anti-Putin protest inside a Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin bristles at the US criticism.


Putin signed a law last year banning US adoptions of Russian children. The move was viewed within the US as retaliation for the Magnitsky law that set in motion human rights sanctions against Russian officials.

Civil society

After returning to the presidency last year, Putin has waged a campaign of harassment and intimidation against civil society groups, the non-governmental organisations that take up causes such as protecting human rights, helping immigrants, defending voters' rights or promoting environmental protection.

Russia also expelled the US Agency for International Development (USAid), which had promoted democracy and civil societies in Russia for two decades.

The Kremlin accused USAid of using its $50ma nnual budget to influence Russian politics and elections and weaken Putin's hold on power.

Gay rights

Violence against gays long has been a problem in Russia. Now the US is criticizing Russia for an official crackdown on gay rights.

A new Russian law imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for people accused of spreading "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. The law covers views expressed online or in the news media. And it bans gay pride rallies.

Russian officials say the law will be enforced during the 2014 Olympics in the city of Sochi.

Asked about that on Tuesday on The Tonight Show, Obama said he has "no patience" for countries that intimidate or harm people because of their sexual orientation.

- AP


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