WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in the Congress on Tuesday assailed President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia as contrary to American interests and values, and urged him to rethink his approach in light of Vladimir Putin's impending return to the Kremlin.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, in a rare speech on foreign policy, warned that Russia's response to Obama's much-vaunted outreach was "nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence."
Pushing for a tougher line, Boehner pressed Obama not to agree to Russia's long-sought accession to the World Trade Organization until it settles a territorial dispute with neighboring Georgia, a U.S. ally, rooted in their 2008 war.
In an address to the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, he also urged the administration to do more to "compel" Russia to curb its ties with Iran, particularly on nuclear and missile technology, and called for a stronger effort to get Moscow to address human rights concerns.
"The United States should insist Russia 'reset' its own policies. If those appeals require teeth, the House stands ready to approve them," Boehner said.
The White House defended Obama's Russia policy, saying it had succeeded in advancing U.S. efforts on a range of issues, including supplying troops in Afghanistan, imposing sanctions on Iran and agreeing to cuts in both countries' nuclear arms.
Taking aim at the reengagement with Russia that Obama has touted as one of his top foreign policy achievements, Boehner voiced suspicion harbored by many U.S. conservatives over the decision by Putin, a former KGB spymaster, to reclaim the presidency next year.
"Soon, Russia will be officially led by someone known to harbor intense Soviet nostalgia," he said.
Boehner's speech, at a time when Republicans are deadlocked with Obama over domestic policy, sought to raise fresh doubts over the Democratic president's global leadership and broaden the assault on his record beyond his economic stewardship.
Obama can blunt Boehner's challenge by pointing to foreign policy successes such as his promise to pull the last U.S. troops from Iraq and the death of U.S. opponents Osama bin Laden, radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But polls show foreign policy is likely to gain little traction in the 2012 election campaign, when concerns over the stagnant U.S. economy and high unemployment are expected drive voters' decision whether or not to give Obama a second term.
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Boehner said that since Obama took office nearly three years ago, Russia "has been the beneficiary of American outreach and engagement."
He said Russia, in response, has "continued to expand its physical, political and economic presence," uses its vast energy resources as a political weapon and "plays ball with unstable and dangerous regimes."
With Putin -- who held the presidency from 2000-2008 -- apparently assured of returning to office in the March election, Boehner said: "It's only appropriate to ask whether the Obama administration will now reconsider its policy toward Russia."
The White House has insisted that the reset in relations would remain on track despite the looming leadership reshuffle in Moscow.
Analysts say that even though Putin has been the power behind the scenes, his return to the presidency could undermine some progress achieved under his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, toward reconciling the former Cold War foes.
There are also doubts whether Putin, known for a more nationalistic tone and strident anti-U.S. rhetoric, will be able to develop much of personal rapport with Obama, who worked well with the technocratic Medvedev.
"We have remained unwavering in our commitment to democratic principle and our support for European security," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
He said Obama had showed that "his national security policies deliver on behalf of American interests, and we have made it clear that the United States will not support Russia's WTO accession until Russia and Georgia reach agreement on their outstanding trade-related issues."
Boehner said he was not arguing for "open conflict" and cited potential cooperation on arms control, counterterrorism and trade. But he made clear his view that Obama's approach had neglected human rights and political reform in Russia.
"We cannot sacrifice values or get away with walling off our interests from our moral imperatives," Boehner said, calling on the Obama administration to "publicly, forcefully, frequently" on rights issues instead of downplaying them.
Human rights activists have criticized the administration for not taking a strong enough stand on the issue with world powers like Russia and China. The White House insists reserves his toughest language for private talks with leaders.