By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Verbal sparring between the United States and Russia has taken on an ugly tone lately, and Vladimir Putin's determination to reclaim the Kremlin in a presidential election on Sunday does not augur well for a fresh start with Washington.
In one recent U.S.-Russian spat, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called "despicable" the Russian veto of a U.N. resolution backing an Arab League plan for transition of power in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have brutally attacked demonstrators.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that the Western criticism of the veto verged on "hysteria."
A website based in Russia, Pravda.ru, proclaimed this week, "Despicable is Hillary Clinton," and referred to the secretary of state as "butch, a trucker-type."
Serious strains in U.S.-Russian ties date to the start of political turmoil in Russia last year, and Russia watchers say it is unclear whether Sunday's presidential election, which Putin is expected to win, and its aftermath, will ease them.
The warming trend under President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Moscow cooled markedly in December after Clinton asserted that Russian parliamentary elections were neither fair nor free, drawing accusations from Putin that she had instigated street protests in Russia.
If a similar cloud develops over the results of Russia's presidential election, with allegations of ballot-stuffing to get Putin back in the Kremlin, the former KGB spy could remain under pressure domestically, especially if street protests against him continue.
That could prompt a U.S. reassessment of ties, said Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
"If you have a regime that is ... very actively detested by a sizeable chunk of the population, you build your relationship differently with that regime. Of course, you continue to work on the things that are mutually beneficial. ... But how many eggs are you still putting in Putin's basket?" Aron asked at a forum this week sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Aron thinks U.S.-Russia relations could become "pretty frosty and cold" if Putin, now the prime minister, returns to the presidency, a job he held from 2000 until 2008.
PUTIN MIGHT WANT TO IMPROVE RELATIONS
Putin has helped stoke anti-Americanism as part of his election campaign emphasizing a strong Russia. He has warned the West not to interfere in Syria or Iran, and accused the United States of "political engineering" around the world.
Putin might scale back the strong words if he wins, some analysts say. But he does not understand that his harsh rhetoric, coming as the United States is also going into a presidential election campaign, "just strengthens the hand of those people (in the United States) who are critical of cooperation with Russia," said Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to former President George W. Bush.
Looking beyond the rhetoric, Putin may be arguing for continuity in foreign policy, said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Despite Putin's criticism of the U.S. missile defense program, for example, he has not ruled out Russian cooperation with it, Collins told Reuters.
The Russian attacks on Clinton are short-sighted but something of a "freebie," Collins said, because Clinton has let it be known she will step down as secretary of state after Obama's first term ends next January. "They know they won't have to deal with her."
Collins warned there could be further fallout if U.S. and European officials portray Putin as something short of a legitimate head of state after the election.
"It is not a perfect election, but this is a Russian question," said Collins, the U.S. envoy to Russia from 1997 to 2001, who now directs the Carnegie Endowment's Russian program.
"I think it's very important, personally, that the political leadership here and in Europe not get engaged in the business of making judgments about whether Mr. Putin is president or not," Collins said.
While Putin is considered the favorite in the election, he is one of five candidates, and if he does not get 50 percent, there will be a runoff later in March.
His critics, fueled by fears that Putin will rig the election, shun reform and mire Russia in Soviet-style stagnation if he comes back as president, are expected to keep up street demonstrations if Putin is declared the winner.
A return of Putin to the presidency could spark more criticism of Russia in the U.S. Congress this year during an expected debate on whether to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations by revoking a Cold War provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Some U.S. lawmakers in both parties are deeply skeptical of Russia due to concerns about Putin's KGB background and human rights record. They do not like Moscow's relations with Iran, which the West seeks to isolate because of its nuclear program.
The Obama administration argued this week that a lot that is "mutually beneficial" had been accomplished under the "reset" policy. That included an arms control agreement known as the new START and a military transit accord in and out of Afghanistan through former Soviet states, said Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Hadley said the United States needed to be able to keep working with Russia in several areas, including counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, Afghanistan and North Korea, where Moscow has been part of six-party disarmament talks to try to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear capabilities.
Both the United States and Russia should try to "get rid of the rhetoric and expectations of reset" and cooperate where they can, Hadley said.
"You can't call it Reset Two. ... You've just got to focus on cooperating where you can cooperate, and try to manage the differences," he said.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Peter Cooney)