Earlier this week, President Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin met at the G-20 summit in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The meeting’s results disappointed realists and international interventionists alike.
The two leaders failed to reach agreements on core geopolitical issues. But the body language said it all: after the two hour meeting the two barely looked at each other, and Reuters reported their demeanor as “cool and detached.”
What a difference a year makes. Gone were the days of going to burger joints with Dmitri, the former president Medvedev being Obama’s favorite Russian leader.
This meeting was tense. The two leaders have fundamentally different worldviews, and their agendas regarding some of the most pressing international problems differ radically. While President Obama is worried about his reelection and contends that improving relations with Russia is his great achievement, Vladimir Putin is trying to reassert Russia’s role as the second “indispensable power” that is balancing the United States in the global arena.
The Long Shadow of Syria
Russia’s main objective is to return to the Middle East, while limiting U.S. influence in the region and preserving lucrative Syrian arms-sales contracts, including transportation and attack helicopters that were purchased in Soviet times and recently refurbished in Russia.
Meanwhile, two Russian amphibious ships may be sent to evacuate Russian diplomats and advisers from Syria, indefinitely delaying arms supplies. Thus, while declaring the need to stop violence in Syria, the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on how to do so.
The joint statement was an exercise in studied generalities: "In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence," Obama and Putin declared in a joint statement after meeting in sunny Los Cabos. But this is unlikely to eradicate the months-long residue of mutual accusations between the Kremlin and the White House.
"We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future," AFP reported them as saying. This is about as effective as a declaration that the United States and Russia would like to see Greece and Spain achieve solvency—or have Russians stop drinking.
The United States has all but given up on securing Russian cooperation to oust Assad. Russia, in turn, points to the international mission in Libya. Moscow says it was assured the West was not bent on regime change and therefore abstained in the UN Security Council, only to see a bombing campaign and massive support of Libyan opposition forces who ousted the old Soviet and Russian client, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Putin does not want to see a remake of the Libyan scenario in Syria.
Several weeks ago, the United States and Russia agreed on the deployment of UN observers to monitor a truce brokered by UN Arab envoy Kofi Annan. But the truce is history, with the UN mission suspending its work over the weekend because of the mounting bloodshed.
In their joint statement, the leaders said the future must be worked out by "Syrians themselves" in the "framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity." That and a nickel will buy you a cup of coffee.
Tensions on Iran, Human Rights
If Syria is exhibit one of what’s wrong in U.S.-Russian relations, Iran is exhibit two. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is testing technologies to produce nuclear weapons. Despite the Obama administration’s desperate effort to set back Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, it failed to secure Russian cooperation in countering Iranian nuclear appetites. While Russia agreed on UNSC sanctions in June 2010 (and is hosting the negotiations between UNSC permanent members plus the German and Iranian governments this week in Moscow), it is opposing the use of military force and doing little to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons. Obama seems to agree that diplomacy is the way to go, but all experience so far suggests otherwise.
Finally, international interventionists (neoconservatives and Wilsonians) point to Russia’s deteriorating human-rights situation as the highlight of Obama’s failing reset policy. Tens of thousands of Russians regularly protest on the streets of Moscow and other towns against rampant corruption, manipulations of elections and prosecutions of members of Russia’s opposition parties.
So far, the protests have led to prolonged abusive searches of the homes of opposition-party members, including the nationalist leader Alexei Navalny and the “it” girl and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. There were also arrests and beatings of more than four hundred demonstrators on June 6, and the new Duma legislation against unauthorized demonstrations which includes skyrocketing fines of up to $30,000 for protest organizers and up to $10,0000 for participants.
Many in Congress will not ignore the abysmal track record of the rule of law in Russia and the spread of corruption and organized crime. As I wrote recently, the Magnitsky Act would not only empower the U.S. government to take action against individuals involved in human-rights violations but also would send a clear message that the United States will support the rule of law in other countries.
Russia’s repressive domestic policy and obstructive foreign behavior on issues essential to U.S. national interests shows that President Obama’s “reset” policy has failed. In Los Cabos, he chose not to criticize Russia’s deteriorating human-rights situation. Since his election, Obama has pursued a Cold War-style arms treaty mandating U.S. nuclear reductions. In return, however, President Putin ran and won on a platform emphasizing anti-Americanism and has created a straw man of a Russia under attack from Western enemies.
To further send a signal to Washington, Putin chose not to attend the G-8 summit at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago. Instead, he went to China for his highly symbolic first presidential visit.
The G-20 meeting was a missed opportunity to recognize that the “reset” policy has indeed reset U.S.-Russia relations—back to the Cold War—and is in dire need of reassessment. For starters, Obama should have told Putin that Russian cooperation on Iran and Syria are the litmus test of the U.S.-Russian relations.
Unfortunately, however, the president could not do even that.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.