Russia gushed that “these were perhaps the best three years of relations between Russia and the United States over the last decade.” Two and a half months later, those halcyon days of friendship look like a distant memory.
Gone is Dmitri A. Medvedev, the optimistic president who collaborated with Mr. Obama and celebrated their partnership in March. In his place is Vladimir V. Putin, the grim former K.G.B. colonel whose return to the Kremlin has ushered in a frostier relationship freighted by an impasse over Syria and complicated by fractious domestic politics in both countries.
The tension over Syria has been exacerbated by an accusation by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday that Russia is supplying attack helicopters to the government of President Bashar al-Assad as it tries to crush an uprising. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, rejected the assertions on Wednesday, saying that Moscow was supplying only defensive weapons and countering that the United States was arming the region.
The back-and-forth underscored the limits of Mr. Obama’s ability to “reset” ties between the two countries, as he resolved to do when he arrived in office. He has signed an arms control treaty, expanded supply lines to Afghanistan through Russian territory, secured Moscow’s support for sanctions on Iran and helped bring Russia into the World Trade Organization. But officials in both capitals noted this week that the two countries still operated on fundamentally different sets of values and interests.
The souring relations come as Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin are preparing to meet for the first time as presidents next week on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Mexico. With Mr. Obama being accused by Mitt Romney, his Republican presidential opponent, of going soft on Russia and Mr. Putin turning to anti-American statements in response to street protests in Moscow, the Mexico meeting is being seen as a test of whether the reset has run its course.
“We were already at a place with the Russians where we were about to move to a new phase,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “A lot of this is can we continue to build on the initial steps we’ve taken with the Russians even as we’ve had differences emerge, most notably on Syria.”
Others see relations between the two countries more pessimistically. “There is a crisis in the Russian-American relationship,” said Aleksei K. Pushkov, the hawkish head of Russia’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee. “It is a crisis when the sides have to balance their interests but they cannot do so because their interests diverge. It is developing into some kind of long-term mistrust.”
The signs of that divergence have been there for a while but have seemed increasingly pronounced in recent months. Michael A. McFaul, a former Russia adviser to Mr. Obama, has been subjected to an unusual campaign of public harassment since arriving in Moscow as ambassador. A Russian general last month threatened pre-emptive strikes against American missile defense sites in Poland in the event of a crisis.
Reclaiming the presidency after a four-year interregnum wielding power as prime minister, Mr. Putin has responded to sustained demonstrations with a crackdown and accusations of American perfidy, singling out Mrs. Clinton. He snubbed Mr. Obama by skipping the annual Group of 8 summit meeting, hosted by the president at Camp David last month.
“The reset failed to change the underlying suspicion and distrust of America shared by a majority of Russians as well as Putin himself,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “America is seen as a threat, an agent seeking to undermine Russia, to weaken it, to do harm to it. Russia always has to be on the alert, on the defensive.”
Adding to the tension have been moves in Congress to impose visa and banking restrictions on Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses. The bipartisan legislation, named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer whose corruption investigation led to his death in prison, passed a House committee last week and will be taken up by a Senate panel next week.
“I see this as part of an effort to make clear the expected international conduct as it relates to human rights,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who has pushed the legislation. “This is what friends do. We point out when you need to do better.”
The Obama administration, seeking to avoid a rupture, opposes the legislation on the grounds that the State Department has already banned visas for Russians implicated in Mr. Magnitsky’s death.
Instead, the administration is highlighting separate legislation introduced on Tuesday by a bipartisan group, including Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, that would repeal decades-old trade restrictions on Russia.
Hours after Mrs. Clinton lodged her helicopter allegations on Tuesday, she sent an under secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, to a Russia Day reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington, where she pointed to the proposed repeal of the Jackson-Vanik restrictions and talked about treating Moscow “with respect.”
The complication for Mr. Obama is that lawmakers like Mr. Cardin and Mr. McCain want to link the Jackson-Vanik repeal to the Magnitsky legislation, seeing it as the only way to win enough votes. Mr. Cardin said he agreed with an administration push to broaden the Magnitsky bill to cover all countries, not singling out Russia, but others in Congress oppose such a move.
Mr. Obama is focusing on enlisting Russia’s help on issues like stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons. The next round of talks between Iran and international powers open in Moscow next week, and the administration hopes that Russia’s role as host will prompt it to use its influence with Tehran to extract more concessions.
One of the biggest successes of the reset, however, has also made the United States more dependent on Russia. With Pakistan cutting off supply lines to Afghanistan, the so-called northern distribution network through Russia is the primary reinforcement route for America’s war on the Taliban.
“We need more from them than they need from us at the moment,” said Angela E. Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russian affairs who now directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. The Russians are less invested than Mr. Obama in the notion of a reset. “They look at that as an American course correction. But it’s not their policy, it’s an American policy,” Dr. Stent said.
Publicly, the administration rejects any connection between Syria and the Afghan supply route. “We’re not linking the two,” said Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. But, privately, officials worry that Russia will try to use the leverage provided by the supply route.
So far, Russian officials have reassured their American counterparts that they will not link the issues. If anything, Moscow worries that the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan too soon, recognizing that a collapse in security there would pose problems for Russia’s southern flank.
For Mr. Obama, who considers improved ties with Russia one of his signature accomplishments, the question is whether the current friction is temporary or is a sign that the reset has accomplished what it can. At some point, administration officials said, it was inevitable that the two countries would settle into a situation in which they cooperate in some areas and clash in others.
The coming meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, on the sidelines of a Group of 20 gathering, could prove uncomfortable for Mr. Obama. The first time the two men met, in July 2009, when Mr. Putin was prime minister, Mr. Putin delivered an hourlong harangue about the United States.
Los Cabos may be no more congenial. “This should be an awkward meeting, because otherwise the president runs a risk of palling around with a guy who’s cracking down on the opposition, who’s selling attack helicopters to a murderous regime in Syria and is just going in the wrong direction,” said David J. Kramer, a Bush official who is now executive director of Freedom House, an advocacy organization.
“The president’s going to be yearning for the days of meetings with Dima,” Mr. Kramer added, using Mr. Medvedev’s nickname. “It probably won’t be a pretty meeting. And it shouldn’t be a pretty meeting.”