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President Barack Obama’s decision to slap more sanctions on Russia and sack 35 diplomats from the U.S. is the latest flashpoint in the bilateral relations of the former Cold War foes. Though the immediate trigger for Mr. Obama’s action are the cyberattacks on Democratic Party systems, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe were carried out by Russians to influence the results of the presidential election, the action must be seen against the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. Ironically, Russia-U.S. relations have hit the lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union under a president who had promised a “reset” of ties. At home Mr. Obama faces criticism for not acting decisively against Russian interventions that go against American interests. The sanctions the U.S. and its European allies have imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea had little impact on Moscow’s foreign policy decisions. In Syria, Russia made a military intervention to boost the regime of Bashar al-Assad against armed rebels who had U.S. support. Mr. Obama remained largely a spectator when Russia reshaped the Syrian conflict, first through a brutal military campaign and then through multilateral diplomacy. Ties plunged to a new low with the allegations of hacking into the Democratic Party systems. By taking the toughest actions yet against Russia in his final weeks in office, Mr. Obama may be trying to mute criticism of his Russia policy.
But Mr. Obama’s policy will have long-term implications for U.S.-Russia ties. The rising tensions have reignited fears of a new Cold War. Though today’s Russia doesn’t have the economic resources of the Soviet Union, its actions in Syria and Ukraine show that Moscow is not afraid of upping the ante in a “unipolar” world. Second, Mr. Obama is further complicating matters of foreign policy for his successor. Given that President-elect Donald Trump had promised during the campaign to have better relations with Russia and closer coordination in the fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Obama’s last-minute intervention is being interpreted as an attempt to tie Mr. Trump’s hands. The Washington establishment is also happy with the President’s decisions. For now, Mr. Putin has deftly avoided a tit-for-tat response, saying that Moscow will assess the policies of the next administration. The question is, what will Mr. Trump do? If he goes completely against the Obama administration’s policies, he will upset the establishment, including leaders from his own party. If he doesn’t, he will fail on his promise of reshaping ties with Russia and potentially raise tensions further. Either way, Russia is back as a top challenge on the U.S. foreign policy landscape.