WASHINGTON — The weather is warm at this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, yet U.S.-Russian relations are still in the deep freeze. Back in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave Russia’s top diplomat a red button labeled “reset” to symbolize how U.S. relations had thawed — even though it was mistranslated into Russian. But the event was more of a downhill slalom, than a soaring ski jump. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes hosting the Olympics will further seal his nation’s status as a world power. But President Barack Obama is among several western leaders who decided not to show up.
Here are five of the issues where U.S.-Russian relations have run off course.
Washington and Moscow are in a standoff over Ukraine, which is rocked by anti-government demonstrations over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an agreement with the European Union and his acceptance of a $15 billion loan package from Russia instead.
Both the U.S. and Russia accuse the other of meddling in the affairs of the former Soviet satellite nation. And last week the two tangled after a Russian government aide posted a video online of a bugged phone call between two top U.S. diplomats.
At one point, a voice believed to be Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland, is heard saying, “F— the EU,” in an expression of frustration over the EU’s pace in taking steps to help Ukraine. Nuland later apologized.
The State Department, without directly accusing Russia of recording and posting the audio of the call on YouTube with Russian subtitles, said the incident marked a “new low in Russian tradecraft.” The Russian government official who posted the link denied any Russian government role, saying he came across the recording while surfing the Web and simply reposted it.
In the bloody war in Syria, Russia is in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s corner and the U.S. supports the opposition.
The Russians made a proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons out of Assad’s control, a proposal embraced by the U.S., U.N. and other nations. Some weapons materials have been destroyed. But peace talks to end the civil war in Syria are not going well.
The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence. Opposition leaders have called on Russia to pressure the government to prevent the faltering peace negotiations from collapsing. Moreover, Russia says it would veto a Western-proposed U.N. resolution threatening sanctions if Assad’s government does not allow full deliveries of aid to civilians caught in the fighting.
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama said Moscow was a “holdout” to the passage of the U.N. resolution. Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry and others have delivered a very direct message to the Russians: “That they cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians. … It is not just the Syrians that are responsible; the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution.”
Responding to the latest tit-for-tat, Russia’s foreign ministry accused Washington of a “biased distortion” of the Russian stance on Syria. It said that Russian diplomats were working with Syrian authorities to help humanitarian efforts and challenged the U.S. to use its influence with the rebels to do the same.
Tensions with the U.S. and Russia spiked last year after Putin granted temporary asylum to former National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, defying Obama’s demands that the 30-year-old American be returned to the U.S. to face espionage charges.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor who fled the United States with classified information, has leaked thousands of pages of documents that revealed that the NSA has been sweeping up millions of Americans’ phone and Internet records and snooping on U.S. allies abroad, including heads of state.
The controversy surrounding the NSA surveillance programs followed Obama to the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia last fall, but Obama chose to call off his one-on-one meeting with Putin while he was in Russia. The Snowden affair has given Moscow a way to turn the tables on Washington, which often criticizes Russia’s human rights record.
The Olympics also has been a venue for debate over a Russian law, signed by Putin in June, banning gay “propaganda” from reaching minors. The law has drawn strong international criticism and calls for a boycott of the Sochi Games from gay activists and others.
A coalition of 40 human-rights and gay rights groups from the U.S., Western Europe and Russia wrote a letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors, urging them to denounce the law and run ads promoting equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
The law bans pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors — a measure viewed by activists as forbidding almost any public expression of support for gay rights. The law cleared parliament virtually unopposed and has extensive public support in Russia.
Obama, who has criticized the Russian law, named a U.S. delegation to the Olympics that includes several openly gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King and figure skater Brian Boitano.
Two members of the punk band Pussy Riot have urged politicians attending the Winter Olympics to criticize human rights abuses in Russia.
The two performers, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were sentenced in August 2012 to two years in prison for hooliganism after an irreverent performance blasting Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral that was broadcast around the world.
Now out of prison, the two criticized Russia’s law banning pro-homosexual propaganda from reaching minors and the risks — including beatings — that gay people and other minority groups can face in Russia if they speak out.
After meeting the two punk rockers in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power traded jibes on Twitter with Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. “I asked Pussy Riot if they were afraid of prison. Response: No. In prison we could see the terrible conditions. It’s human rights fieldwork,” Power added.
Asked about it later, Churkin defended the performers’ arrest, re-tweeting sarcastically that perhaps Power would like to invite the band to perform in a world tour at the National Cathedral in Washington, St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, Mecca in Saudi Arabia “and end up with a gala concert at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.”