G-20: Long Shadow Hangs Over U.S.-Russia Relations

A cancelled bilateral meeting was a blunder—can the two leaders move forward?

In the Snowden affair and President Obama’s decision to reject an invitation by Russian president Vladimir Putin for a one-on-one meeting ahead of the G-20, the danger is growing that the United States is repeating the unnecessary and costly mistakes of the 1990s in dealing with Russia. In the decade after the Berlin Wall was breached, a weakened and disorganized Russia watched first as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and then as the Soviet Union itself did. In both regions, especially Central Europe, the Kremlin might have responded with military force as it had before, possibly even with tactical nuclear weapons, but happily clearer heads prevailed even amidst the collapse. The George H.W. Bush administration, especially then-secretary of state James Baker, worked hard to negotiate a peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, and it found reluctant partners in Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

In the following decade, U.S. policy was less wise and balanced, and Russia also provided a less judicious counterpart. No doubt, Russian power and influence had dissipated. No longer a central player, let alone one of two global superpowers, Russia was treated publicly as an irrelevance. Its objection to the bombing of Serbia and the intervention in Kosovo was brushed aside, its certain veto in the Security Council ignored by avoiding the United Nations entirely through NATO. Russian warnings against invading a sovereign country in Iraq for what turned out to be no real direct—let alone imminent—threat to the United States carried no weight. When Russia and China agreed not to prevent a no-fly zone or a limited humanitarian engagement in Libya, the effort broadened into a war for regime change, but without any modification in the UN mandate.

Leaving aside whether all of these may well have been good, well-founded choices by the United States and its allies, from the Russian perspective they were all undertaken against its strong objections, and that would not have happened in, say, the mid-seventies. President Clinton and President George W. Bush hardly even pretended to take Russia’s interests, positions, or sensibilities into account, a reflection of certain hard geostrategic realities perhaps, but maybe not so judicious.

The past decade has brought numerous disagreements and little reason to expect comity at any “summit” meeting (although even the term now seems quaint, especially since Russia is no longer at the summit in any meaningful sense). Russia and the US have been at odds on Syria, Iraq, Kosovo, Serbia, and a host of other international issues. Moreover, Putin campaigned using anti-American broadsides, continues anti-American propaganda on state-owned television, has re-constricted freedoms of speech and association, seen to police raids on and the prosecution of liberal politicians and NGOs (many funded in part by the United States and, if so, required to register as foreign agents), appointed cronies to govern whole regions and sometimes-critical media outlets, evicted USAID, and encouraged the statesmen of countries that have been thorns in the U.S. side.

Then came Snowden and his documentary treasures, uninvited by the Russians and the subject of a U.S. request for extradition. Obama has been insistent that he be returned and, although visibly annoyed at being afflicted by Snowden’s surprise arrival, Putin could not easily have given him up without looking weak internationally and especially domestically. Would the United States have sent Snowden back to Moscow were the roles reversed, even with the assurance that torture and capital punishment were not an option?

So, with Snowden the final straw as it were, President Obama has now cancelled his acceptance of Putin’s invitation to meet, ostensibly because the groundwork for progress had not been laid. But is that really accurate and, even if so, is it wise? It is true that unlike China, Russia has provided material, military, and apparently financial support to Syria (although Russia has basing rights in Syria, which China does not). Yet notwithstanding China’s opposition at the United Nations and its provocations in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping was invited for a bilateral meeting with Obama without a specific agenda for progress on potential agreements during their two-day informal meeting in California (including an informal dinner), not at a short meeting ahead of a twenty-country international forum.

Yet with Russia as with China there are several issues on which bilateral concurrence could be pursued and others (like Syria) in which disagreements could perhaps be softened, as they have at earlier summits. At the very least, better mutual understanding have resulted, especially over differences. The fact is that both the U.S. and Russia are concerned about Iran and its nuclear potential and (albeit for different reasons) its encouragement of Islamic fundamentalism. Russia supported the U.S.-initiated arms embargo, but will it do so in the future? The growing turmoil in the Middle East and Turkey is another. Missile defense and strategic arms reduction are still on the table.