After a year of policy disagreements between the US and Russia, turmoil in Ukraine could test their relationship again. Initially the two sides showed restraint, but now the tone is becoming sharper.
As Ukrainian protests against the government's turnaround on a wide-ranging trade deal with the EU have escalated in recent weeks, the US has often kept a low profile. Sending the wrong signal, goes the thinking, could cause further deterioration in Washington's fraught relationship with Russia on a range of recent foreign policy quandaries.
In remarks following massive demonstrations in central Kyiv last week, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, "We don't think this is a zero-sum game. Ukraine can have a strong relationship with Russia, with the EU and the United States. There's enough room for all of us to be friends here," during a foreign policy briefing.
This week, the tone turned less conciliatory in a phone call between US Vice President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Monday (09.12.2013) as well as in a statement on Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry. The focus in both was on condemning the use of violence against Ukrainian protesters and, secondarily, on expressing support for Ukrainian leaders to return to the table for talks on the EU trade agreement. The State Department added on Wednesday that it is considering sanctions against Ukraine in light of Kyiv's harsh response to protests.
But comments on the country believed to be behind Ukraine's about-face on the trade deal have been noticeably lacking in the US response thus far, says Russia and Eurasia expert Jeffrey Mankoff of the Wasington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The statements that have been coming out of Washington haven't really mentioned Russia. They've mentioned Ukraine," Mankoff tells DW, "There's nothing about: 'Russia should butt out, stop pressuring the Ukrainians.'"
Setting the right priorities?
Jessica Gienow-Hecht of the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin agrees that Russia's influence on immediate foreign policy questions for the US is setting the tone for Washington's answer to the Ukrainian turmoil - an answer that has consisted primarily of silence until this week.
"The short-term US national interest is to work on the relationship toward Russia," says Gienow-Hecht, explaining that US officials are emphasizing progress on key international issues of the last year over the longer-term threat of Russia forging a new economic and military bloc that could resemble the Soviet Union in certain respects.
Over the last year, the international community has dealt repeatedly with disputes in which the US and Russia have been at opposite sides of the table, including the Syrian civil war, nuclear proliferation in Iran and the question of extraditing Edward Snowden to his home country. On the first two issues, the US and Russia have at least managed to find compromises.
Washington and Moscow are at a point where they are "condemned" to work together, Russia expert Jeffrey Mankoff says, despite the two powers recognizing that Ukraine could become a very explosive issue in their bilateral relationship.
Just as the US is exhibiting caution in its response to Ukraine, so, too, is Russia, says Mankoff, "Certainly, the Russians have shown in the past that they can seize on developments in the post-Soviet space as a way to wield a club at the West and, specifically, at the US. There hasn't been a lot of that so far, and I think that's an interesting development."
A new foreign policy test for Obama
The US may also be tempering its tone when it comes to the role Russia played in Ukraine's abandonment of the EU trade pact, but this week is bringing signals of a more forceful US response on other fronts. John Kerry's statement to Ukrainian leaders expressed "disgust" at the response to protesters, while his office raised the threat of sanctions, and a diplomatic envoy traveled to Moscow to express American support for the EU-Ukraine trade pact.
That may help Obama dodge another round of complaints from his opponents that his foreign policy lacks direction and is leading to a decline in American prestige abroad.
Nonetheless, the administration's broader foreign policy goals remain somewhat inscrutable, says Jessica Gienow-Hecht, "What we are missing very clearly is a signal for the world and for the American voter as to: What is your priority? Is it just to keep your hegemonic place, or to establish a new order, or is it maybe to make sure that the order also works?"
As Ukrainian protesters continue to defy police and smash Soviet emblems, it's clear that world order won't include an updated Russian-led bloc unless Moscow overcomes heavy resistance.