Putin and Obama’s Cold WarU.S.-Russian relations are worse than they have been in decades, a situation not helped by the openly hostile rhetoric of the two countries' presidents.
With the Syrian crisis in full swing and an American military intervention still on the table, U.S.-Russian relations are worse than they have been in decades. On both sides, grandstanding and diplomacy have formed a precarious balance. Nonetheless, the crisis has opened new possibilities for cooperation in recent days.
Barack Obama’s persona on the international stage has not been particularly consistent. His earlier attempts to distance himself from his predecessor, who often acted unilaterally to resolve international issues, clash with attempts at countering criticism of being too “soft.” So far, however, the more hawkish Obama finds himself quite isolated — at home and internationally.
Relations with Russia have been particularly affected by Obama’s grandstanding. Moscow consistently blocked any attempts to pass resolutions that would legitimate the use of force in the U.N. Security Council. Moreover, Russia is currently sending warships and planes to the region to prepare for a possible evacuation of its military installations and citizens from Syria, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East.
The Syrian situation is, however, only a further complication in U.S.-Russian diplomacy, which is currently suffering worse than ever in the post-Soviet era. In August, Obama unexpectedly canceled a presidential summit in Moscow planned for early September. It was the first cancellation of such a high-level meeting in more than half a century. Obama had even ruled out that he would meet with Vladimir Putin informally during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg last week. Facing the rapidly escalating Syrian crisis, the two presidents nonetheless met — for a mere 20 minutes. Their fixed smiles, tense body language and bland statements before the press showed that they were unable to find common ground, and not for the first time.
The two men’s personal relationship is deeply strained. Obama is quite obviously disappointed that he has not been able to build the same kind of rapport as he had with Putin’s presidential place-saver, Dmitry Medvedev. Moreover, America’s reset policy in relations with Russia, announced four years ago, yielded few concrete results. Instead, the two countries bicker over Syria, American plans for missile defense in Europe and nuclear disarmament. The straw that broke the figurative camel’s back was Russia’s decision to grant NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden temporary asylum, a step that New York Sen. Charles Schumer dramatically called a “stab in the back.”
Obama rapidly changed his tone toward Putin as a result. Although his administration had rarely criticized Russia for human rights violations earlier, Obama, speaking on “The Tonight Show” on Aug. 6, accused Putin of “Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.” On Aug. 9, in an uncharacteristically uncouth remark, he said that Putin had “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Obama appears determined to counteract what many described as Putin’s “bullying.” The Russian president, for his part, “openly despises” Obama, according to Russian political analyst Andrey A. Piontovsky.
The new stance is not unpopular. A survey by The Huffington Post and YouGov immediately after the cancellation of the summit showed that 54 percent of Americans see Russia as unfriendly or an “enemy of the U.S.,” while only 20 percent view relations positively. A June Gallup poll indicated that a growing majority of Americans have a negative opinion of Russia and that 82 percent see “the military power of Russia” as a critical or important threat to U.S. national security.
In U.S. media, criticism of authoritarian tendencies and corruption in Russia is often paired with a highly simplified image of the country as a totalitarian dictatorship in the grip of Putin’s iron fist. One example is the recent edition of “The Last Word” on MSNBC in which Lawrence O’Donnell revealed his unsophisticated view of Russia and virtually shouted down a more nuanced expert opinion.
Commentators in American newspapers do not mince words either when it comes to expressing their opinion on Putin. USA Today commentator and Truman National Security Project fellow Lionel Beehner demanded last month that the U.S. treat the “remnants of Soviet empire like the broken-down, has-been bully it is” and compared the entire country to an “ex-jock who still wants to be taken seriously, despite a growing beer gut and a habit of talking down to everyone.”
On the political level, there has been criticism in both parties, most notably from Sens. Schumer and John McCain, who called for the cancellation of the summit. A growing movement in the U.S. even urges a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year because of the country’s anti-gay laws (see my article on the subject). Obama has so far rejected a boycott.
Nonetheless, Obama leaves the impression of merely reacting to developments on the international stage, whether in relations with Russia or Syria. In both cases, the long-term aims remain unclear. No one knows what kind of a chain reaction even a limited intervention in Syria could set off, and the future of Russian-American cooperation is equally mysterious.
An anonymous source in the State Department told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that “the ball is now in Russia’s court” and that the Obama administration expects constructive new initiatives from the Russian government after Putin all but rejected a batch of proposals from Obama this spring.Putin has certainly done his part to frustrate Obama. The Russian president is far from hesitant when it comes to playing the anti-American card for political gain. American “interference” is a convenient scapegoat for all kinds of political tensions at home and failures on the international stage. Putin, whose popularity among the more progressive and urban strata of the population has dropped since his return to the presidency and the mass protests last year, increasingly cultivates his predominantly conservative and nationalist base. Nonetheless, there are other factions within the Russian government that favor a more cooperative relationship with the United States, particularly on international questions.
In the aftermath of the summit cancellation, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tried to calm the waves, focusing on common interests and joint efforts in the fight against terror. Lavrov did not miss the opportunity to point out the key role Russia plays as a crucial transit country for American supplies into Afghanistan, among them more than 265,000 U.S. troops over the years. And even if the two countries see no common ground on Syria, it is clear that there is no chance of any solution of the conflict without a modicum of cooperation between the great powers.
This cooperation will remain difficult, however, in an environment in which neither one of the two presidents has much to gain from it domestically. Still, crises like the Syrian one develop their own, surprising dynamics: On Monday, Russia called on Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Syria seemed inclined to comply. Lavrov seemingly backed a statement from John Kerry, who said earlier that Syria could avoid military action if it handed over its chemical weapons to the international community. As of now, it remains unclear whether Lavrov simply took advantage of an imprudent statement by Kerry or whether Russia and the U.S. planned this step cooperatively.
What is clear, however, is that the option of placing Syrian chemical weapons under international custody has been on the table during Russian-American talks for a year. According to Russian and American newspapers, Obama and Putin also discussed the option during their brief meeting in St. Petersburg. The proposed solution may be the last possible option of avoiding a U.S. strike against Syria. In a best case scenario, it would allow all parties to save face. Russia can present a diplomatic success, Obama can claim that his unbending stance finally forced the Russians to put pressure on the Syrian regime, which in turn can present itself as a constructive partner. Pitfalls remain, however: The timetable and course of implementation is vague. Weeks or months of negotiation may follow at a time when the U.S. administration is increasingly impatient. Nonetheless, the proposal at least shows a possible path toward defusing the immediate crisis.Wait, before you go…
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