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AUDIE CORNISH, host: A decision by Russia to veto a Security Council resolution on Syria set off an angry response in Washington. The two countries sparred publicly, with the U.S. accusing Russia being on the wrong side of history, and Russia complaining that the U.S. can't use the Security Council to promote regime change. With all the mudslinging, we wondered what happened to the Obama administration reset of relations with Russia.

NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The way Russia's ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin sees it the U.S. and its partners are trying to pick and choose who are legitimate leaders in the Arab world. First it was Libya, he says, now they are trying it again in Syria.

Ambassador VITALY CHURKIN: We have to reflect on the concept of legitimacy. It's a very complicated concept. But what I know for sure: It is not for Paris, Washington or London to pass a definitive judgment about the legitimacy of certain leaders in the Arab world or anywhere else.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials shouldn't have been surprised, says Matthew Rojansky of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says the Russians felt burned by Libya and don't want the Security Council to be in the business of choosing the winners in the Arab uprisings - particularly in Syria.

Dr. MATTHEW ROJANSKY: They've picked their own winner and for now that's Bashar Assad, just as it's been the Assad family in Syria for decades. There are still weapons sales debts. There are still relationships in the intelligence and military and diplomatic communities that date back to pre 1991. And these things still have resonance.

KELEMEN: And besides, he says, the Russians just see things differently in these Arab uprisings.

ROJANSKY: The Russians view it much more cynically, to begin with. I don't think they see some sort of deterministic outcome of, you know, liberal Western-style democracy as either desirable or inevitable.

KELEMEN: In fact, the Russians have a natural aversion to revolutionary upheavals and international meddling, says Fiona Hill of the Brookings institution.

Dr. FIONA HILL: Every military scenario that the Russians basically engage in their annual exercises, either on their western or eastern flank, always involved some kind of local revolt pulling in outside forces. So this is not just a paranoia. It's something they actively prepare against.

KELEMEN: There's another reason why the Russians want to stand up to the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council, she says - internal politics. The U.N. vote came soon after Vladimir Putin announced that he'll be switching places with President Dmitry Medvedev.

HILL: In spite of the fact that Mr. Putin has already declared his presidency in effect, it's still an electoral season. And being forceful with the United States and not letting the United States have its way, is always good politics in the Russian domestic environment.

KELEMEN: But she says that doesn't mean an end to the Obama administration's reset of relations with Russia. Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees.

Dr. ANDREW KUCHINS: The Russians have their own reasons for having a better relationship with us and for, you know, why they support us in Afghanistan, particularly in the new transit corridors. Why they found it in their interest to sign the START Treaty.

I don't think that we should necessarily anticipate that the Russians are going to start applying linkage in their policy toward us, 'cause we really don't toward them.

KELEMEN: Analysts say the challenge for the administration is to keep its close ties with President Medvedev on track, and reopen channels to the president-in-waiting, Vladimir Putin.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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