With expectations for the Moscow summit already low, Obama’s decision may not be as disappointing as it appears at first.
President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. Photo: AP
President Obama’s decision to cancel his bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin is obviously a symbolic gesture. Will it go beyond this and negatively impact the long-term U.S.-Russian relationship or will it remain a reason for “disappointment” only?
So far, it seems that Russia and the United States keep exchanging “public” messages that have no practical implications for the everyday relationship and cannot worsen it further. And while such a course of action seems to facilitate quick closure of the windows of opportunities, in fact, there is not so much to close.
There can be several reasons accounting for Obama’s demarche.First of all, after all the hysteria in the United States about the Snowden case, the White House had to respond harshly to the Russian decision to provide interim one-year asylum to the new “Wikileaker.” Both public opinion and the elite in America have no doubt that Snowden is a public enemy who inflicted significant detriment to U.S. national security.
As a result, the Obama Administration had to be consistent in its response. After the forced landing of presidential aircraft in Europe and other controversial steps that affected the reputation of Washington in the eyes of its allies - including the fact of giving refuge – Obama was doomed to react in such a way. And even though the Kremlin did its best to keep its distance from Snowden (by pretending that nothing happened in the Sheremetyevo transit zone) and to find elaborate ways of getting rid of him without extraditing him to the United States, the final decision on asylum was nolens volens a slap in the face of Washington.
Secondly, the potential bilateral meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama could hardly result in any kind of breakthrough. The two presidents had just met at the G8 Summit and most of the modest achievements possible (such as the signature of the framework agreement aimed at replacing the Nunn-Lugar program) had already been announced. Hence, the Moscow summit could produce no real news.
Moreover, the positions of the two parties on many hot topics on the international and bilateral agenda have not changed significantly. So their repetition in Moscow would unlikely result in any progress. Putin and Obama virtually have nothing new to say to each other by now – be it Syria, new nuclear cuts, or human rights.
The Geneva-2 conference is somewhere beyond the horizon and nobody still wants to get trapped in the intervention. The Berlin initiative on further strategic arms reduction left Moscow cold and skeptical, as Russia would like this process to become multilateral and expects more concessions from Washington with respect to tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense.
As a matter of fact, Russia has no need here to speed up the process. Cultural clashes during the slow news days of summer, like the shameful episode with a U.S. band desecrating the Russian flag or the outcry over LGBT rights, cannot make a productive conversation for the leaders either. The potential boycott of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, which is now being instigated by the U.S. media and politicians, is not ripe enough to be drawn to the official level. This issue, if ever tackled by real decision-makers, is pending late September to early October.
A potential success story could be the revival of the “Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission 2.0” with greater emphasis on economic cooperation. However, according to the traditional division of labor in the Russian power system, this issue is more a sphere of competence of the prime minister, rather than the president. And the economy by itself cannot make an achievement at a U.S.-Russia summit – the customs of bilateral summits between the two “great powers” indicate that economic agreements are not enough and a more complex agenda is needed. Anyway, economic issues will be negotiated at the G20 summit.
Thus, Obama’s decision is a face-saving maneuver in terms of U.S. domestic politics, but it is not extremely harmful to U.S.-Russian relations. Moscow will not take close to heart this alleged “lesson” by the U.S. for its stance on Snowden and will not regret the cancellation of the summit. After all, it is Obama who loses another opportunity to convey his arguments to Mr. Putin, while Russia can afford to sit and wait for another chance at top-level talks, carrying on with routine ministerial work in the meantime.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.