Sometimes it is better to do nothing. That was the axiom of the late Ambassador Max Kampelman, reflecting on his nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Such a time has arrived again in US-Russia relations. Even if Russia’s handling of Edward Snowden precipitated President Barack Obama’s decision, he was right to cancel his visit to Moscow to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for other reasons.
We should expect little to be accomplished in this relationship for the rest of Obama’s term. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is better than holding empty but heavily choreographed meetings.
From 2009 until 2012, the United States and Russia accomplished a great deal in their bilateral cooperation. The now widely discredited “reset” yielded significant benefits to both nations. When Islamic militants blew up allied convoys to Afghanistan in Pakistan, Russia offered transit services through Russia and Central Asia. President Obama valued the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement on a mutual reduction of nuclear forces. The US Congress also ratified the civilian nuclear agreement concluded under President George W. Bush.
In 2012, two important economic agreements came into force. In August, Russia finally became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Last December, the US Congress granted Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), allowing US exporters to enjoy the benefits of Russia’s accession to the WTO.
But just as everything seemed to be coming together in US-Russia relations, they started falling apart when Putin recaptured the presidency from Dmitri Medvedev last year. His current view of the United States is contradictory. He likes the luster of being an international leader and making deals with the captains of big US corporations, but he dislikes and is even paranoid about the US government, convinced that it is intent on ousting him as in Egypt, Libya, and Ukraine.
Big US businessmen are satisfied with their relationship with Russia. Thanks to Russia’s WTO accession and the US granting PNTR to Russia, trade has been depoliticized and top US businessmen have ample access to President Putin. US exports of goods and services increased by 70 percent from 2010–12, and sophisticated manufactures dominate this export. US business does not really need any new major agreement with Russia.
Relations between the two governments are another story. President Putin’s election campaign was outright anti-American. His old-style anti-Americanism framed his programmatic article on foreign policy, “Russia and the Changing World,” published in Moscow News on February 27, 2012.
In particular, Putin complained about US democracy promotion and missile defense, arguing that “the USA and other western countries try to usurp the human rights agenda, completely politicizing it and use it to exert pressure . . . Russia feels an aggressive criticism lacking objectivity and pretense . . . .” Pointedly, he did not mention President Obama’s “reset” policy. The White House did not respond to this tirade, which just escalated.
From the fall of 2012, the Kremlin followed up with an impressive list of anti-American actions. USAID was told to leave Russia. The Kremlin ended the successful Nunn-Lugar nuclear cooperative threat reduction program. A combination of anti-American and repressive actions rose to a crescendo when the US Congress adopted not only PNTR for Russia, but also the so-called Magnitsky Law, attempting to strengthen the rule of law in Russia.
Americans were prohibited from adopting Russian children. Nongovernmental organizations that received international funding were labeled “foreign agents.” Through various forms of harassment American organizations promoting democracy, such as Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute have been chased out of the country.
The Kremlin even indulged in the personal harassment of US Ambassador Michael McFaul. Incredibly, the White House did not make any public protest. Such timid behavior can only arouse contempt in Moscow.
It is time to face realities, and President Obama has finally done so. The “reset” agenda has been exhausted. President Obama is interested in a new nuclear arms reduction agreement and the evolution of missile defense, but Putin is not. Russia has not been helpful on Syria and it is a natural opponent of the United States in the Middle East. The Kremlin is likely to be more restrained in its support of the current Syrian regime if the United States holds back. Moscow is also pursuing an aggressive policy against its neighbors, currently a politically motivated trade war against Ukraine.
President Obama has rightly identified the problem: “When President Putin . . . came back into power . . . we saw more rhetoric . . . that was anti-American . . . I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues—with mixed success.” Tellingly, official Russian media censored Obama’s personal comments on their president.
After Obama’s candid public statements, two US-Russian meetings at undersecretary of state level were scheduled: one to prepare for a conference on Syria and another for discussion of missile defense and disarmament. On August 22, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman claimed that that President Obama’s visit had been postponed, not cancelled. “The invitation . . . is still in force, and we hope that he will use it at some point in time.” Good luck with that!
Remember that President Ronald Reagan broke off meaningless arms control talks early in his term and refused to see the first three Soviet presidents on his watch. Only when Mikhail Gorbachev became president did he accept a US-Soviet summit after nearly five years in power. President Reagan understood that summits can be more harmful than useful.
Obama has no reason to enhance Putin’s image through his presence, and the likelihood of him reaching any agreement with Putin is slight. Apparently, President Putin feels the same. In May 2012, he skipped the G-8 meeting at Camp David and a planned bilateral meeting in the White House with eight days’ notice.
Why should these two men ever have a bilateral meeting again?