Obama-Putin Summit At Risk

August 5, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: RussiaUnited States

Obama-Putin Summit At Risk

Pressure to cancel the meeting is growing. Should Barack and Vladimir take a rain check?

Pressure is growing on the Obama administration to cancel the bilateral summit meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has now called upon the U.S. government to propose that the forthcoming G-20 summit in St. Petersburg be moved to another location. Given it is highly unlikely that the other states of the G-20 would agree to such a change—and given the importance of this conclave to the stability of the global economy, it would be difficult for the president to boycott the meeting or insult the other heads of state who would attend by sending the vice president or secretary of state in his stead. So while Obama's trip to St. Petersburg remains on the schedule, the fate of the separate one-on-one encounter with the Russian president remains in the air—and a sideline discussion at the G-20, while possible, merely would be a temporary stopgap.

Grievances have been building up. The Russian decision to give temporary asylum to the former NSA contractor Ed Snowden may be the biggest irritant, but other issues—ranging from continued Russian support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the passage of harsh new antigay legislation—have contributed to the emergence of a new coalition of unlikely allies who normally would be on opposite sides of the political aisle but are united in their demands that Russia be "punished."

The Russian government has its complaints too. The decision to give Snowden temporarily asylum seems to have been motivated, in part, by Russian irritation at the U.S. presumption that the American justice system's demands must be honored but that Washington is free to criticize and impugn the activities of Russian courts and law enforcement. Having passed the bill creating the Magnitsky List, and with members of Congress agitating to add more Russian officials who would face U.S. sanctions, U.S. legislators should not at all be surprised that the Russian government is not particularly concerned with their criticisms (and indeed, Schumer's earlier characterizations of Russia as an "ally" who was refusing to do the United States a favor by turning over Snowden must have caused some head-scratching in the Kremlin). Putin operates on a simple code of reciprocity: I'll recognize your enemies and criminals when you recognize mine. Instead, many of the people who Putin deems to be criminals have been celebrated as advocates for freedom, starting with the Pussy Riot performers last year. Now, the United States has had good reasons for questioning, in a number of recent high-profile criminal cases in Russia dealing with putative political opponents of the regime, the fairness of the Russian judicial system. But Putin has a long history of responding to any Western criticisms of Russia's democracy deficit by pointing to what he sees as analogous failings in the United States. The Snowden case has allowed him to demonstrate not Russia's superior virtue when it comes to matters like internet freedom, but that the United States is no better than any other great power—that the things for which it routinely criticizes Russia it engages in as well.

Putin thought he had signaled a possible compromise when he stated a few weeks back that while he would not turn Snowden over to U.S. jurisdiction, Snowden would have to cease his "anti-American" activities in order to remain on Russian soil. Given that the damage to U.S. national security is already done, the Russian side may have thought that the furor over the case would die down. They appear to have miscalculated. The problem now, however, is that there is no overriding issue of U.S.-Russian relations that requires a bilateral summit meeting to take place. In 1986, the Nicholas Daniloff affair (the American journalist seized in Moscow on trumped-up spy charges after the arrest of a Soviet UN employee, Gennadi Zakharov, on suspicion of espionage) was settled by a compromise solution in order not to disrupt plans for the forthcoming Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The dangers of a breach between the two superpowers trying to take the first steps to wind down the Cold War provided the logic for both sides to reach a settlement. Now, however, there is no such imperative. There is no arms-control agenda to pursue; Obama's call in Berlin for further cuts in nuclear arms runs up against Russia's strategic logic in retaining some weapons, particularly tactical nuclear weapons, to offset the collapse in its conventional capabilities. The Geneva talks on Syria are hamstrung and are not going to produce the outline of a settlement to end that country's civil war. No one was expecting this summit to produce anything of substance, other than to try and jumpstart the personal relationship between the two presidents which has remained noticeable chilly since Putin returned to the presidency last year.

So perhaps a pause is warranted. This is not a case, as during the Cold War, where an unproductive summit meeting is better than no meeting at all. It is, politically, a no-win situation for Obama. If he agrees to the summit with Putin, both Democrats and Republicans will shower down criticism on the White House. To offset this, the administration would be tempted to engage in some grandiose statement of American displeasure while in Russia—a public lecturing of Putin, or the attempt to schedule prominent meetings with the anti-Putin opposition—steps that might not mollify Obama's domestic critics but would incense the Putin government and, in turn, tempt Moscow to take more steps on its part to do things that would anger the United States. We have already seen, during the 2011-2012 period, how this inexorable logic of tit-for-tat began to undo all the positive steps undertaken during the period of the reset.

A cancellation is risky. Putin may view this as a personal insult. Perhaps the president could use his personal relationship with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to once again "convey a message to Vladimir" (as Medvedev did during their encounter in Japan in 2012) about political realities and seeking an opportunity to reschedule at a more politically opportune time.

The fallout from a cancellation might also prove to have a silver lining. There has been a lot of loose talk on both the Russian and American sides about how neither country really needs the other and that it would be no big deal if there was a serious rift in relations. Dealing with the consequences of a cancelled summit might help to clarify thinking among the political elites in both capitals who seem to relish in stirring up anti-American and anti-Russian sentiments.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.