By Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, May 30 (Xinhua) -- The U.S.-Russian relations remain strained amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis, with no apparent signs of easing tensions on the horizon, U.S. experts said.
The United States and Russia have been at odds in recent months over the surprise deployment of Russian troops into Crimea, Ukraine. Washington blasted the Russian move for violating international law and slapped sanctions on Russia as punishment, though Moscow defended it as simply protecting the region's Russian-speaking population.
The development has caused a rift between the White House and the Kremlin, although experts said any military conflict between the two countries is highly unlikely.
Still, there is no U.S. ambassador in Moscow three months into the Ukraine crisis after former Ambassador Michael McFaul left the Russian capital a day before Russia's surprise troop deployment.
The spat has given way to much sabre rattling, with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week publicly mocking his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama.
"Who is he to judge, seriously? If he wants to judge people, why doesn't he get a job in court somewhere?" Putin said in an interview with the CNBC, reflecting his view that the United States should not interfere with events in Ukraine.
"I think Putin ... made an assessment of Obama and decided that (Obama) is weaker than Putin. And therefore that Putin can push Obama on a number of issues," Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, told Xinhua.
"He thinks that he can get away with publicly disparaging and offending Obama. That he can undermine Obama's stature as the ... leader of the United States," he said.
Moscow also grabbed headlines last month when a Russian SU-24 fighter plane buzzed closely by the USS Donald Cook in the western Black Sea in a move analysts said was a message to Washington to keep out of Russia's sphere of influence, as well as a bid to gauge the U.S. response.
That event, plus Russia's general stance toward the United States at the moment, suggest that Russian policy makers view America as strong but perhaps not as strong as previously, and not as focused on Europe as its main strategic priority following Obama's Asia pivot, David Clark, chairman of the Russia Foundation, told Xinhua.
So far, Putin has viewed Obama as weak and unable to economically punish Russia for the latter's moves in Ukraine. After lambasting Moscow for its moves in Ukraine, Obama merely slapped travel bans on a handful of Russians, a move viewed as a lackluster response by those who advocated much harsher sanctions.
"In order to make sanctions work, the U.S. needs to get the Europeans on board," Cohen said. "The U.S. managed to do that in the case of Iran, and Iran's willingness to negotiate the nuclear program was a result of the sanctions. Russia is a much more powerful country than Iran, and I think Mr. Putin thinks that the U.S. and Mr. Obama cannot impose meaningful sanctions."
Still, if Obama succeeded in getting others on board with sanctions, Russia would re-assess the situation, he added.
Russia currently supplies around a quarter of Europe's oil and natural gas, not to mention 40 percent of economic powerhouse Germany's gas, and Moscow also has a deep trade relationship with Eurozone nations. Some experts said this could make Europe hesitant to impose sanctions.
Russia sends nearly 300 billion U.S. dollars worth of exports to EU countries, which account for nearly half of Russia's total exports, whereas Russia is only the 20th largest trading partner of the United States.
In perhaps the first positive development which could help ease the tensions between Russia and the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis, Russia pulled thousands of troops back from Ukraine's border in recent days.
While hailing it as a "promising" move by the Russians, the Pentagon said on Thursday that this did not change the fact that Russia has "radically destabilized" the situation in Ukraine in the past months and that Moscow should take more concrete steps to bring peace throughout the region.