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US not replaying Cold War, but Russia?

US President Barack Obama in Mexico, on February 19, 2014
US President Barack Obama in Mexico, on February 19, 2014

President Barack Obama may not see America and Russia squaring off like diplomatic grandmasters over a Cold War-style chessboard. But he can't speak for Vladimir Putin.

The White House and the Kremlin, already estranged over Syria, are on opposite sides of the duel in Kiev between pro-Western protestors and a pro-Moscow government.

Talk of a "new Cold War" may be overblown, given the relative power of the two states, and the lack of the ideological clash that drove four decades of hostility.

But there is growing recognition in Washington that President Putin views confrontation with the United States as a way of building political legitimacy at home.

"If you look at Russian foreign policy today, it is motivated by restoring a sense of Russian influence and prestige in the world," said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

Putin believes the way to do that is "checking" US power, said Wilson, who served on president George W. Bush's national security council.

The White House, struggling to contain multiple global crises, has no incentive to ignite the foreign policy nightmare a wider clash with Moscow would entail.

Past American support for NATO expansion -- and for the right of ex-Soviet states to determine their own path -- is seen in Washington as simply standing up for peoples that share US veneration of freedom.

But in Moscow, such talk is often seen as seeding US influence in Russia's rightful orbit.

A frustrated Washington rejects a core argument of Kremlin foreign policy -- the idea that Russia is entitled to restore its Soviet-era sway in its own neighborhood.

"We consider this idea of spheres of influence to be a wildly outmoded notion," said a senior State Department official on condition of anonymity.

"We've been clear about that with the people of Ukraine, we've been clear about that with Russia."

Still, the Obama administration seeks to preserve Russian cooperation where it can, on Iran nuclear talks, on extricating US troops and material from Afghanistan and on counter-terrorism.

Relations between Putin and the Obama administration have deteriorated for months -- the showdown over Ukraine's relationship with Europe is simply the latest flashpoint.

Obama aides also vent at Russia's support for President Bashar al-Assad, which it faults for thwarting diplomatic efforts to end Syria's civil war.

Putin's decision to harbor fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, which carried the whiff of his KGB past, caused Obama to abort a planned summit last year.

But casting Russia out into the cold is not an attractive option.

This is one reason why the administration highlights its deal with Russia requiring Assad to destroy chemical weapons last year -- even if it is well behind schedule.

"It behooves the administration to recognize that we are going to need the Russian partnership in terms of Iran, counter-terrorism and in many areas," said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center.

But forging a policy to deal with Putin who seeks strength from American decline, is complicated.

Each dispute, whether over Syria or Ukraine, exposes Obama to claims he is weak and inconsistent, from domestic foes who saw his earlier "reset" of ties with Moscow as a pipe dream.

Republican Senator John McCain was quoted as saying Thursday that Putin had "played" a "naive" Obama incredibly.

Obama rejects the Cold War analogies.

"I don’t think there's a competition between the United States and Russia," Obama said in Mexico on Wednesday.

"Mr Putin has a different view on many ... issues. I don't think that there’s any secret on that.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, on February 18, 2014
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, on February 18, 2014

"Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia."

Obama had originally hoped to work with Putin, when he returned as Russian president in 2012 -- famously telling his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev he could be more "flexible" over a row over a US missile defense shield after his own reelection the same year.

But Putin snuffed out the "reset" Russia policy, under which Medvedev and Obama sealed a nuclear arms treaty, tightened sanctions on Iran and lunched at "Ray's Hell Burger" a restaurant a few miles from the White House.

- Downhill after bad start -

Putin started out by snubbing a G8 summit at Camp David, and things went downhill from there.

But Washington and Moscow have yet to split over Iran -- and that may be key to Obama's policy stance.

The two states are members of the P5 plus one grouping of world powers negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program.

A deal to thwart an Iranian bomb would be the prime achievement of Obama's second term -- and may be impossible without Russia's help.

So while Washington is outraged at carnage when troops fire on protesters in Kiev -- and may impose sanctions, few in Washington argue the showdown is a dominant US national interest.