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Freeze Settles On U.S.-Russia Commission Amid Ukraine Standoff

The Ukraine crisis appears to have scuppered efforts by President Barack Obama (right) and his administration to "reset" Washington's relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. (left)
The Ukraine crisis appears to have scuppered efforts by President Barack Obama (right) and his administration to "reset" Washington's relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. (left)
WASHINGTON -- A bilateral commission that served as a cornerstone for U.S. President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Moscow, facilitating cooperation on issues such as arms reductions and counterterrorism, has ground to a standstill following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory.

The United States has informed Russia that it will not participate in the next two scheduled working group meetings of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission due to Russia's actions in Ukraine.

"No other upcoming meetings are scheduled at this time," a senior administration official told RFE/RL. "We will continue to review engagement with the Russians on a case-by-case basis."

The commission was created in 2009 by Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and both governments as well as outside experts have praised the initiative as a vital mechanism for deepening collaboration among senior officials.

Officials have conducted hundreds of bilateral meetings under the commission's 21 working groups, and the U.S. side has praised the framework as a crucial component of cooperation on arms control, nuclear security, counterterrorism, and joint military exercises and counternarcotics operations.

A joint report issued in December 2013 described the commission's counterterrorism working group as "the main vehicle for our bilateral counterterrorism cooperation."

The U.S. decision to suspend its participation in the commission comes amid a series of measures aimed at punishing Russia for its takeover of Crimea, including sanctions against senior Russian officials and businessmen seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the sanctioned officials is Viktor Ivanov, the chief of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service and the co-head of the bilateral commission's counternarcotics working group, whose scheduled June meeting in Moscow the Americans have declined to attend.

Ivanov's agency, which has coordinated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in operations in Afghanistan, decried the sanctions against its boss last week, accusing the White House of "rupturing longstanding successful and fruitful cooperation of the two countries in the battle against narcotics."

The United States has also informed Russia that it will not participate in a planned April meeting of the commission's innovation working group in Minneapolis, the senior administration official told RFE/RL.

In addition, a sub-working group on mass media slated for April in Chicago has been canceled, as was a sub-working group meeting on energy security in Houston in early March, the official said.

The Russian Embassy in Moscow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reset To Default

White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said there are currently no scheduled meetings for the bilateral commission's counterterrorism working group, but that "ongoing operational" cooperation in that sphere "has continued to date."

The most recent meeting under the commission's umbrella was held by its business development and economic working group in Washington on February 26, a senior administration official said.

The freeze is the most notable stumbling block in the commission's activities since January 2013, when the U.S. side pulled out of the commission's civil society working group in response to what an American official at the time called "recent steps taken by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society."

While critics have heaped derision on Obama's reset policy as the rift between Washington and Moscow deepens, his administration has vigorously defended the approach, citing the New START strategic arms reduction deal that came into force in 2011 as well as Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization as examples of its success.

Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Russia and the director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, said that "most of the main accomplishments" between the two sides after the launch of the reset "were at least developed and implemented" through the bilateral presidential commission.

"The notion that you have … an integrated whole to complement these disparate individual efforts – the sum total of which was a relatively healthy and successful U.S.-Russia relationship for several years – made good sense," said Rojansky, the author of a 60-page report on the commission published in 2010.

Rojansky said the commission has been pivotal in the implementation of the so-called "123 Agreement" on civilian nuclear cooperation as well as with coordination on the Northern Distribution Network, a NATO supply line in and out of Afghanistan that passes through Russia and Central Asia.

"When you are trying to get a major transit agreement, like the Afghan Northern Distribution Network, off the ground, you really need … military logistics people talking to each other," he said. "And again, that was something that was built into the structure of the commission."

The bilateral commission has been an "important element of the whole effort to sort of restructure the relationship and put it on a more positive footing," in particular because it "thickens and deepens the work of both governments with each other," said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Bill Clinton.

"You need to have the ability to conduct business on everything from counternarcotics to nuclear proliferation to energy security in order to have a relationship which isn't dependent on very episodic and limited contact" at the presidential level, Collins said.

He added that while the suspension of U.S. participation in the commission is part of the response to a "totally illegal and unacceptable Russian action against Ukraine's territorial integrity," he fears the Obama administration may be undermining its own interests with the move.

"I'm afraid what's happening here is that we're rapidly shrinking that capacity as these kind of contacts are interrupted," Collins said.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.