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As anti-US policies multiply, should next president treat Russia as friend or foe?

Russia will be at the top of the foreign policy agenda for whoever is in the White House. Ordinary Russians give their view of the election to NBC News in Moscow.

News analysis

LONDON -- One thing is clear: whether it's President Barack Obama or President Mitt Romney, dealing with Russia will be on his "must do" list.

The "sleeping bear" has been pretty restless lately: it has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria and blocked U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to end the civil war there; it has refused to pressure Tehran, even though it helped build Iran's nuclear enrichment program; and relentless push-back by Russian President Vladimir Putin against basing a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic – both former Soviet satellite states – has left those two NATO members exposed and nervous.

Jason Reed / Reuters, file

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18. In the past six months, while supplying arms and support to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, Putin has shut down a U.S. government program inside Russia that dismantled its obsolete nuclear weapons, and restricted USAID's operations there.

But figuring out what to do about Russia first means defining who exactly Russia is. Is it, as Romney submits, America's "number one geopolitical foe"? Or, as Obama seems to believe, is Russia a post-Cold War rival with whom we can do business?

Let's step back a little here. Certainly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, relations with Russia under President Boris Yeltsin were more benign. Remember all the guffawing and back-slapping between Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton?

Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images, file

President Bill Clinton laughs with Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin during a press conference on October 23, 1995.

Unfortunately, all that good cheer soon turned into a humiliating debacle. Yeltsin was often intoxicated. He launched two disastrous wars in Chechnya, and became a laughingstock as his economy tanked and rich "oligarchs" divvied up the nation's wealth.

Full coverage: NBCNews.com's The World is Watching series

Then came Putin – the former KGB agent who heavy-handedly stopped the hemorrhaging. He re-established Kremlin control over oil and gas, and as oil prices tripled he pumped billions of petro-dollars into his military and, as importantly, into the salaries and pensions of Russian voters.

'An equal'
His popularity skyrocketed; and it was time for the West to take heed. At a Munich security conference in 2007, Putin threw down the gauntlet. He accused the United States – under President George W. Bush – of a murderous policy of global domination and said Russia had the weapons to "neutralize" any missile defense near its borders.

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It was not a declaration of war, but it was a turning point – from an America-friendly…to a confrontational Russia. "Russia was back," Fyodor Lukyanov, managing editor of Russia in Global Affairs, told me. "That was the message – we have the resources. You need the resources, and you need to treat Russia with respect. As an equal."

And the chill began to thaw. Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Putin as Russian president and seemed more open and Western-minded than his mentor.

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy in the third and final presidential debate.

He and his counterpart, Barack Obama, agreed to "reset" relations, hoping that the rebooting would clear all the static. Soon, both sides came together on transporting supplies for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan across Russian territory; cooperation in areas like counter-terrorism and narcotics interdiction increased; Medvedev even championed some political reforms that would have guaranteed the emergence of a real opposition. That is, until Putin retook the presidency last May. Since then, he's rolled back all the reforms, and seems to have "re-reset" U.S.-Russian relations to the days of the Cold War.

Russia warns Obama's 'reset' in relations 'cannot last forever'

Putin is turning the screws, and not just by dramatic moves, like imprisoning members of the female punk group, Pussy Riot, on charges of blasphemy for having performed an anti-Putin song in a Moscow church.

Members of the band Pussy Riot, arrested in February after storming a Moscow cathedral, were sentenced to two years in jail Friday. Critics say the arrest was Putin's personal revenge, raising questions about justice in Russia. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.

"A pale of repression is settling over the country," wrote Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation in a recent New York Times editorial. "This crackdown is wrapped in legislative garb, but the iron grip of authoritarianism is unmistakable."

New laws now slap pro-democracy protesters with large fines for "illegal assembly." One protest leader – Sergei Udaltsov, the head of the Left Front – has been charged with "plotting riots" and could spend 10 years in jail.

Anti-Putin activists pay high price, but refuse to back down

Others may follow – the courts have just expanded the meaning of "high treason" to include the sharing of information with any foreign non-governmental organization. In addition, NGOs which get funding from abroad must now register as "foreign agents," echoing the days of Cold War espionage.

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And even as our presidential candidates debate whether Russia is a friend or enemy, there seems little doubt that Putin himself sees America as a looming geopolitical target. In the past six months alone, while supplying arms and support to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, Putin has shut down a U.S. government program inside Russia that dismantled its obsolete nuclear weapons; he's closed the UNICEF offices, and restricted USAID's operations there.

Russia tells US: We don't' want your aid money

As his anti-American policies multiply, it's small wonder that in a recent national poll, Russians were seriously divided on whether they loved America…or hated it (46 percent to 38 percent, respectively).

Conservatives like Cohen are frustrated. While Putin turns Russia into a "fortress," they say, the Obama administration keeps offering up carrots, like gaining Russia access to the World Trade Organization.

Vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan praised running-mate Mitt Romney's foreign policy stances at the last presidential debate, telling TODAY's Savannah Guthrie that the GOP candidate did a "fantastic" job of spelling out his doctrine.

They claim the reset just hasn't worked.

"America should pursue its national interests in relations with Moscow, instead of pursuing a feel-good mirage," Cohen wrote.

'Putinization' spreading in Europe, US group warns

President Romney says he would stand up to Russia and talk tough about human-rights abuses. But it's less clear just how a 2nd term Obama presidency would deal with Putin's Russia.

Putin himself has said that he'd rather work with Obama than with the "misled" Romney. That's understandable – on Obama's watch, Putin has succeeded in cracking down on civic dissent at home and building the world's largest publicly-traded oil company – Rosneft.

Russia's Putin: Romney 'mistaken,' Obama 'honest'

Some Russia analysts are calling strategic energy reserves Putin's "new Red Army" – the Kremlin now controls some 25 percent of Europe's, including European NATO members', energy needs.

But does all of that make Russia an enemy, like al-Qaida or Iran? Hardly. Still, it probably means that the next U.S. president is going to have to take off the gloves in dealing with it.

"Putin's understanding of international affairs comes down to a fight for power and prestige," says Lukyanov.

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And Putin seems intent on using that power and prestige to counter U.S. influence around the globe, even as he turns Russia back into a police state.

Vice President Joe Biden  reacts to President Obama's performance in the third and last debate, noting the president has demonstrated the "grasp and a gravity" of foreign policy.

The columnist John Vinocur recently suggested that, if re-elected, Obama should "stand up with protesting Russians the next time they fill Moscow's streets."

But how many protesters – and their leaders – will be languishing in jail by then?

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London who has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years.

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