The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Brookings Institution hosted panels with experts who discussed the state of U.S.-Russian relations on Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, respectively, as Russia will be hosting the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg this week and President Obama has already said he will not meet with Russian President Putin.
Andy Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at CSIS, said the relationship reminded him of the tradition in Russian literature of the "superfluous person" who has talent and resources, but chooses to sit idle and to refuse to engage with the world. He characterized the relationship as a "train wreck" for the past two years, although not as dangerous to world peace as it was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Kuchins called the personal relationship between Obama and Putin the worst personal relationship between leaders of the two countries in the history of their diplomatic relations, including the Soviet period. He likened it to the Bataan Death March, and despite Putin's interest in trade issues, he and Obama are absolutely unable to get on the same page. That Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, received asylum in Russia has only exacerbated this circumstance, as what could have been handled as a diplomatic matter has instead been elevated to a public spat.
At the Brookings event, moderator Jeremy Shapiro asked three experts to respond to questions on various aspects of the relationship. He asked Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, whether the relationship is "roiling" due to differences of the Snowden and Magnitzky affairs, Russia's anti-gay policy (he could have mentioned the anti-adoption policy), and the prospect of a limited U.S. attack of targets in Syria, a Russian client state. (Sergei Magnitzky was a Russian accountant and auditor who was arrested while investigating an international tax evasion ring and who was beaten and died while in police custody.)
Shapiro asked Pifer whether the relationship is as bad as it appears, and what happened to the "reset."
Pifer made three points in response. First, it is unreasonable to expect two countries that have so many interests to agree on every point. Second, the "reset" was a success to the extent that it achieved cooperation between the two countries on such important issues as a new Start arms control agreement, an embargo of arms to Iran and facilitation of U.S. access to Afghanistan. Third, it is flat wrong to say this is the worst state of the relationship, given that during the Georgia crisis in 2008 there was no cooperation at all between Putin and Bush-43.
Shapiro asked Angela Stent, director of the center for Eurasian, Russian and East European studies at Georgetown, whether the course of the relationship is merely cyclical or whether someone is to blame. She recalled that the relationship was worse in 1999 when the United States was bombing Kosovo, as well as worse in 2008 at the end of the Georgia war.
She found a pattern under Presidents Clinton and Bush-43 in which the first terms started out with high hopes followed by disillusionment in the second term. She suggested that Putin never bought into the reset, but rather thought of it as an admission by Bush-43 that he needed to correct his past mistakes.
According to this analysis, the pattern has accelerated under Obama. It might be possible to hit the pause button, but the Americans don't know what the Russians would want out of a summit.
Asked whether the problems were compounded by Putin's comeback, Clifford Gaddy, an expert on U.S.-Europe relations at Brookings, described a U.S. policy based on the premise that Putin would not be coming back. (One wonders where the policymakers could have gotten this idea.)
Thus the reset was based on the idea that relations would improve under Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who would reprise the role of Mikhail Gorbachev. This was a long shot, and the Obama administration had no fallback plan.
Now it approaches every issue as one-off, with no coherent policy as to how to deal with Putin. Gaddy added that he does not believe Putin is anti-American, but a large segment of the Russian people are anti-American. From Putin's point of view, the Americans are anti-Russian, they do not take Russia's interests into account when formulating policies and actions that affect Russia, and they are prone to blunder.
All of these ideas are conflated into a lack of confidence in the ability to work effectively with the United States.
Pifer remarked that Putin is motivated primarily by domestic policy, and the demonstrations by the middle class in 2011 reflected an alienation on the part of middle-class Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg who have benefited from Putin's economic policies. For his part, Obama resents Putin for playing the anti-America card.
Shapiro asked whether Putin sought to curb Snowden's agitation against the United States, because Putin already has operatives to do that whose jobs could be threatened by Snowden's work.
Gaddy responded that Putin has taken steps to prepare the Russian economy for a possible relapse in the global financial crisis, and Putin is impressed by the duration of the crisis and believes that countries that are able to survive the next episode will enhance their competitive positions. He likes to keep his options open, but he has moved toward greater self-sufficiency and the creation of a trade bloc centered in the entities that composed the former Soviet Union.
Finally, Shapiro asked the obligatory question about policy on the Syrian crisis, and Stent emphasized that Putin believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will prevail, and Putin has demonstrated a preference for working with authoritarian regimes and a fear that Islamic regimes could destabilize vulnerable areas of Russia, views that American presidents have often shared.
She also said that as a former KGB man, Putin is sensitive to actions the United States has taken to extend American influence in East Europe and Central Asia.
In summary, it appears that Putin sees the Americans as bungling the global financial crisis and efforts to manage unrest in the Islamic world, and he may have concluded he is dealing with amateurs in the White House.
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