Russian experts say the downturn is a result of Putin's determination to do away with international pacts that he sees as demeaning or forcing Russia into a 'junior partner' role.
Alexei Nikolsky/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
Russia officially pulled out of a decade-old law enforcement and narcotics agreement with the United States on Wednesday, just the latest casualty in an escalating tit-for-tat chain reaction of diplomatic blows that seems well on its way to demolishing the entire infrastructure of US-Russia relations constructed since the demise of the USSR.
Stopping this runaway train, which has already seen the rupture of several bilateral deals and the expulsion of key US agencies from Russia, will be one major challenge facing incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry, who told a Senate panel prior to his confirmation Tuesday that "the United States must find a way to work with Russia."
To whatever extent personalities may make a difference, there may be no one better placed than Mr. Kerry – who is almost universally well regarded in Moscow, and who had a quiet hand in the early Obama administration "reset" with Russia – to arrest the slide.
But Russian experts warn that the unfolding process runs much deeper than just a diplomatic quarrel that looks to be getting out of hand. They say that Russian President Vladimir Putin began his third term in the Kremlin last May determined to change the terms with which Russia relates to the outside world, and to do away with cooperation agreements and international ties that he sees as demeaning to Russia, or which force Russia into a dependent or "junior partner" role.
"The decision was taken that the whole infrastructure of relations, created largely in the 1990s, no longer corresponds with present realities and should be abolished," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal.
"All agreements based on the notion of 'a strong, rich America with a poor, weak Russia' must go. This has been the program since Putin returned to power.... The idea is that if we relate with the US in the future, it must be as equals. Russia has changed, and doesn't need anyone's patronage anymore," he says.
Russia's withdrawal from the 2002 agreement on cooperation in law enforcement and drug control came with a brief announcement on the Russian government's official website Wednesday. It said that the deal, which had involved US financing for joint anticrime operations, "is out of line with today’s realities and has exhausted its potential."
That cancellation came less than a week after the US had pulled out of the inter-governmental Civil Society Working Group, set up as part of President Obama's "reset" policy for improving ties with Russia.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told journalists that the US move was a reaction to the Kremlin's growing crackdown on Russian civil society groups, which makes it futile to cooperate with the Russian government in this field.
"We would rather direct our efforts in other ways and continue to work on our direct support for civil society organizations who want to work with us," Ms. Nuland said.
Last September, Moscow summarily ordered the US Agency for International Development to shut down its operations in Russia. The next month it ended Russian participation in the 20-year old Nunn-Lugar program, which financed the safe destruction of old Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons. In both cases US officials complained that the Russian shift appeared abrupt, with virtually no warning or explanation provided.
In December, Mr. Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev Act, which puts restrictions on what US citizens may do in Russia and, in particular, bans them from adopting Russian orphans.
Most observers saw the adoption ban as an emotional Russian reaction to the US Magnitsky Act, signed earlier in December by Mr. Obama, which imposes visa and economic sanctions on Russian officials deemed to have committed serious human rights abuses.
The case of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who died under suspicious circumstances in a Moscow jail almost three years ago, has become the biggest source of Western mistrust – some say misunderstanding – driving the downward spiral in US-Russia relations.
But many Russians, including former President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, have insisted that prohibiting US adoptions of Russian children was not an angry response to the Magnitsky Act but part of a broader Kremlin strategy to wean Russia from all kinds of foreign dependency.
The adoption ban "is not linked with the Magnitsky case, neither legally nor practically," Mr. Medvedev told CNN's Fareed Zakaria this week.
"The so-called Dima Yakovlev Act is the law which expresses the concerns of the Russian parliament ... about the destiny of our children, because no matter what anyone says, this is the direct responsibility of a state: to ensure that children who do not have parents have the necessary care, including health care," he added.
Experts say that Russia's new foreign-policy doctrine, which has not yet been signed by Putin, will lay out a coherent rationale for steps that have been taken so far, all aimed at restoring Russian "sovereignty" after two decades of being weak and dependent.
"Some people may think Putin's acting like a bull in a china shop, but others think he came into office for his third term with a changed mind about relations with the West, particularly the US," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign-policy columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant.
"This view is that Putin cannot forgive the West for its attitude when he announced his comeback. It's true – many signals came from the West that Putin was not wanted, that Medvedev would have been preferred.... Putin is probably very offended," he says.
"But more fundamentally, the foreign policy taking shape now is really about domestic political needs. It's about the rising Russian middle class and its propensity to take to the streets in anti-Kremlin protests.... Putin just cannot see this as a home-grown phenomenon; he thinks it must be foreign-inspired, and he has said as much...."
"Hence, Putin sees it as a domestic priority to minimize relations with the US, as part of his strategy of marginalizing any domestic forces that might question his policies," Mr. Strokan says.