NEW YORK, August 11, 2013 — President Barack Obama, by canceling his meeting with Vladimir Putin, signals that U.S.-Russia relations mirrors tit-for-tat Cold War politics. When Obama ran for president in 2008 he campaigned on diplomatic engagement saying, “it is not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies.” Five years later he is describing the President of Russia as “a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Talking to one’s enemies is not a sign of weakness, but speaking out of frustration is weak leadership. Washington and Moscow are moving into an antagonistic, dysfunctional relationship, therefore, Obama needs take control to improve of the White House’s engagement with the Kremlin.
Obama has never labeled Russia as an enemy, but his attitude towards the Russian government has changed since the 2012 presidential election when he denounced his opponent Mitt Romney for saying that Russia is America’s number one enemy.
Building a productive partnership with Russia was already difficult before Moscow decided to grant temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The introduction of the Magnitsky Act last year is partly responsible for the current state of U.S.-Russian relations.
This U.S. legislation imposes visa bans and financial sanctions on 18 Russian citizens who are linked to detention and death of Sergei Magnitsky or other human right violations. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, uncovered an alleged $230 million tax fraud scheme, which involved a network of Russian officials. When he reported the scam, Magnitsky was then accused of involvement. While being held in pre-trial detention in Moscow, he died of medical neglect and abuse. American lawmakers and human rights activists took legislative actions to correct the alleged unjust handling of the Magnitsky’s case.
The bill was signed into law on December 14, 2012. Two weeks later Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children.
This year on April 12, the U.S. Treasury Department released the “Magnitsky list,” the roster of names of those subject to U.S. sanctions. On April 13 Moscow banned 18 Americans from entering Russia.
Two months later, Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow to flee extradition. That Putin would officially harbor Snowden was predictable, regardless that the White House and the Kremlin already have differences on other critical issues. Obama cited that a stalemate has been reached on Syria and human rights and said it was “probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are and calibrate the relationship.”
Obama’s decision to cancel talks with Putin is justifiable if he plans to leverage his absence to redirect the relationship with Russia, perhaps preventing it from spiraling down further. It could best serve as a wakeup call to Moscow and should be supplemented with lower level talks over the next few months to repair the damage.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel finished discussions with their Russian counterparts to reach an understanding about differences over Syria, trade, global security, America’s missile defense plan for Europe, Russia’s anti-gay legislation, human rights and American adoptions of Russian children. No announcement was made that any settlements were made.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, claims that Moscow was prepared to sign agreements on trade and nuclear research and security if the meeting went as planned.
Moscow is surely planning to retaliate against Obama’s diplomatic blow, but the President needs to prepare to find a way out of this public relations conflict that has clear policy implications.
Putin’s image of Russia as the counterpart to American power motivates many of his actions. Anti-American rhetoric from Putin has been on the rise since last year according to Obama. If Obama’s cancelation turn out to be merely a reaction without a strategy, then Washington risks allowing Putin to present U.S.–Russian relations as a renewal of both countries’ Cold War battles.
Putin is committed to Cold War diplomacy, at least in front of the media, but Obama must remember that engaging in tit-for-tat politics only feeds Putin’s ego.
Obama may need to restructure the relationship with Russia on a limited engagement basis. Until Putin is out of office, Washington may want to talk to Moscow only when necessary.
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