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U.S., Russia relations throw off sparks

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Early in the Obama administration, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a mock-up of a large red button inscribed with the Russian word “reset.”

Or so she thought.

The button, meant to signify the start of a new relationship, actually was labeled with the Russian word for “overcharged,” according to Lavrov.

Clinton, in her embarrassment, laughed loudly, saying she wouldn’t let the Russians do that to us, that is, overcharge the relationship. Well, after five years, it has come to that.

If U.S.-Russian relations were a fuse box, it’d be spewing sparks.

Sure, America and Russia have worked together on some issues which smacked of cooperation but in actuality merely advanced each side’s distinct national interests.

For instance, Russia was part of the P5+1 countries that hammered out the preliminary nuclear deal with Iran a few weeks ago in Geneva.

While it looked like Russia was supporting us, Moscow has no more interest in a nuclear Tehran than Washington does. To Russian thinking, an Iran deal undermines U.S. plans for an anti-Iran missile defense system in Europe, something Moscow loathes.

Then there was Syria. America and Russia worked to craft a deal to remove chemical weapons from the civil war-torn country. Not bad, but Moscow really did it to prevent Washington from raining down bombs on its Damascus ally.

For the Kremlin, the fall of the Bashar Assad regime would mean the loss of a Syrian seaport for its warships, a major arms sale client and influence in the Middle East.

So, even if both sides were self-serving on Iran and Syria, you’d think ties wouldn’t be in such bad shape, right? Wrong.

With the NSA-leaker Edward Snowden affair a constant irritant, Obama made the latest move in a game of “snub” that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been playing with each other.

Last week the White House announced that neither the prez nor the veep would be going to the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, a Putin pet project, showcasing his Russia.

(No wonder we’re seeing these high-profile pardons in Russia. How do you say “charm offensive” in Russian?)

The United States and Russia are also scuffling over political turmoil in Ukraine based on whether Kiev can have closer ties with the European Union, an idea Moscow opposes.

Moscow sees control of Kiev as critical to Russian interests. It serves as a buffer state between Russia and Europe, especially NATO; consequently, Ukraine must fall into Russia’s sphere of influence.

The news that Russia may deploy nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, a piece of Russian territory nestled between Poland and Lithuania, is even more troubling — and possibly a sign of future brass-knuckle Kremlin moves.

While the sorry state of ties isn’t all Team Obama’s fault, managing the relationship is its responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s stacking up so far as — another — foreign policy failure.

Indeed, that mistranslated word engraved on that now-infamous red button actually wasn’t an error, but rather a misspelling that proved to be amazingly prophetic.

 - Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Originally appeared in the Boston Herald

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