4 Issues Chilling U.S.-Russian Relations As Winter Olympics Begin In Sochi

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided her Russian counterpart with a novelty red button marked “reset” to commemorate the thawing relationship between the two. Five years later, Thursday saw the first events of the 2014 Winter Olympics get under way, figure skaters taking the ice and skiers the slope, but the event venues weren’t the only thing that were frosty. While Moscow and Washington have managed to stick together as part of the P5+1 negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, and the two have shown themselves to be wary allies in combating terror, the lead-up to the Olympics has exposed and highlighted several of the rifts between the two former Cold War rivals. Here’s a look at 4 of those issues.

1. Ukraine

The ongoing protests in Ukraine found themselves the center of media attention on Thursday, when a recording alleged to be of a top State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine discussing the country’s political future surfaced on YouTube yesterday, first widely reported in the Kyiv Post. Ukranian president Viktor Yananukovych’s government has been facing down near constant protests since turning away from a deal to strengthen ties to the European Union in favor of Russia instead last November. U.S. officials were quick to denounce what they say is a Russian hand in the recording and its distribution. Russian aide Dmitry Loskutov, the official referenced in White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s statement, denied to the Associated Press that he or the government had any role in leaking the recording.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian protesters in question are beginning to fear that the Russian government is preparing to take a more direct role in halting the protests, above and beyond its $15 billion bailout. “Everyone knows that Russia is going to send troops to Ukraine – we have known it for a long time now,” one demonstrator told USA Today. Russia for its part has begun blaming the U.S. for fomenting instability in its former sattelite state, “What the Americans are getting up to now, unilaterally and crudely interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, is a clear breach” of a treaty between the two countries, one Russian advisor told a Ukrainian newspaper.

2. Human Rights

One of the most prominent storylines leading up to the Olympics has been Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community and predictions of acts of protest and defiance ahead of the Games. Last June, the Russian government approved a law criminalizing the act of promoting gay rights, deeming it “propaganda,” a decision that spurred international condemnation. Russia seems committed to enforcing the law, both through turning a blind eye towards beatings that gay rights activists have received in recent weeks and conducting the first arrests during the games in St. Petersburg on Friday. Sochi’s mayor has gone as far as to claim that no gays exist within his city, despite the presence of two gay clubs within city limits.

While not going so far as boycotting the Opening Ceremonies, the American delegation is almost certainly trolling Russian president Vladimir Putin in its composition, which includes two now openly gay athletes. Russia has in turn responded to denouncements from Olympic sponsors of its laws through banning the import of Greek yogurt. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia ambassadors to the United Nations on Thursday traded barbs over the Russian treatment of protest group Pussy Riot, who are currently touring the United States. The members of the art project cum human rights advocacy group were imprisoned for months over a performance criticizing Putin in a church that the Russian government labeled as blasphemous.

3. Edward Snowden

A nagging thorn in the U.S.’ paw is the asylum status Russia granted former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year. Snowden fled with a trove of classified documents last year, setting off a wave of revelations about American surveillance efforts within the U.S. and spying overseas. Travelling first to Hong Kong, then to Moscow, Snowden found himself facing charges under the Espionage Act should he return to American shores, something he seems to have no intention of doing in the near future.

When Moscow first offered shelter for Snowden last August, the U.S. was quick to denounce it, warning it could potentially affect relations between the two. President Obama did wind up cancelling a formal meeting between himself and Putin last September on the sidelines of the G-20 summit held in St. Petersburg — though the two did have a brief informal session on Syria during the event. U.S. lawmakers for their part have blamed Russia itself for helping Snowden abscond with the documents in the first place. While there was some discussion recently over whether the U.S. should offer amnesty for Snowden over the reforms the NSA is now being pressured to undertake, the U.S. has yet to agree to drop the charges.

4. Syria

Russia’s continuing support for the Syrian government has also proven to be a repeated schism between the U.S. and Russian Federation over the past three years. Despite repeated condemnation over his government’s human rights abuses — including the use of chemical weapons against civilians — the Russian government has yet to truly break from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. After debating for months with the U.S. over the composition of the Geneva II talks between the two sides in the Syria conflict, the first round took place last month with little progress made. And despite evidence of the Assad government intentionally starving civilians to punish them for providing comfort to rebels, Moscow believes that now is not the time for a United Nations Security Council resolution urging Syria to allow aid through.

The U.S. and Russia did manage to sign off on an agreement last year to ship Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country in light of the Obama administration’s readiness to use force to punish Assad’s attack on civilians last August. Since then, the effort to actually implement the accord has hit a rough patch though Russia insists that Syria is living up to its obligations.