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Why Obama is Wrong to Snub Moscow

Not for the first time this year, Russia’s president has had his American opposite number at a disadvantage.

August 8, 2013 - Josh Black - Articles and Commentary



The decision to grant the whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, asylum after more than a month in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport reeks, like the spy drama in May, of political opportunism.

The decision was reportedly unexpected even by the Obama Administration, not least because it looked for a long time as though Vladimir Putin was irrevocably opposed to upsetting the Americans.

By cancelling a pre-summit meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama may have thrown off course his legacy-defining second term. After the US President disparaged Russia’s government for its “Cold War mentality” and joked about his opposite number’s KGB background, the irony is that Russia’s defence and foreign ministers are due to be in Washington this week. Meetings with Chuck Hagel and John Kerry will go ahead, simply because there is too much riding on them.

Obama’s focus on dialogue with unpleasant regimes in the 2008 presidential campaign was the right policy for the wrong reason. He believed that by offering a hand, he could will authoritarian states to unclench their fists. Most foolishly, he believed that by talking solely to reformers he could embolden them at the expense of hardliners. Yet Obama’s distaste for talking to Putin complicate the problems that remain. Palestine, Syria and nuclear proliferation – these are issues that require constant dialogue and strong stomachs. None are soluble without Russia’s input. As Carney admitted: “Our cooperation on these issues remain a priority for the United States.” This is why Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Putin is an act of pure symbolism, and a foolish one at that.

First, let’s look at the politics behind the decision. Veteran anti-Putin figures and organisations, including John McCain and David Kramer of Freedom House, called on Obama to boycott not only the pre-G20 meeting but the Sochi Winter Olympics next year. For Obama to refuse would now have looked like weakness. With midterms next year and various candidates seeking out frustrated groups within the democratic caucus, Obama’s strongest supporters might not be as fully behind him as they once were.

But then, it is a truism that American presidents focus their attention on foreign policy once their domestic political capital starts to diminish. For Obama to achieve anything in his final three years in office, Russia needs to be an important partner. This has ever been true, despite the efforts to prove the contrary of those who still credit Ronald Reagan with victory in the Cold War.

Obama’s Cold War remarks were meant for public consumption, but they will serve Putin equally well, as Russians are suspicious of both American foreign policy and their treatment of Edward Snowden.

The Kremlin prides itself on its intransigence and believes that it is easy to engineer the sort of crisis that exposes America’s hypocrisy and inability to sustain a meaningful conversation. Obama, to his credit, once saw that the grim pattern of Russian disappointment and progressively more extreme opposition to America’s goals was not inevitable. Yet he has ended up contorted in knots over whether to seek Russian support or use his bully pulpit to lecture the country’s rulers.

Obama gambled on the reset boosting the appeal of then president, Dmitry Medvedev. He appointed Michael McFaul, a Stanford academic and author of Russia’s Unfinished Revolution as his ambassador. In four years, America repealed the Jackson Vanick restrictions on trade with Russia and ensured Russia’s entry into the WTO. Russia in turn assisted the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and agreed to cut its stocks of nuclear weapon. A frosty competition descended on Georgia and Ukraine, doing little for democracy in the region, but at least avoiding further wars, fought either with gas or tanks.

Today, foreign policy hawks are keen to speculate that shale gas will render Russia more or less powerless in the next few years, while the Putin regime will crumble without American support. Both of these assumptions are wrong. Putin’s regime has weathered political and economic crises and is maintaining its influence in the former Soviet republics.

There is a strong moral argument to Obama’s snub. Russia has become more illiberal since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency; conservatives seem to have been given free reign to bully protestors including Alexei Navalny, and to humiliate those who try to improve the quality of life of the average Russian, as with the late Sergei Magnitsky. Obama dwelt on the country’s curtailment of gay and lesbian rights at the invitation of Jay Leno, but thankfully failed to adopt the host’s comparison with Nazi Germany.

America deals with many illiberal countries around the world. Sometimes it does so for pragmatic reasons, other times because it wants to encourage a positive image of itself or to embolden reformers. Disappointment in the capacity of America to project soft power is not a good enough excuse to retreat from the world altogether. A snub works only when the target does not want to be snubbed. Putin’s indifference means Obama would be better off rolling up his sleeves. Russia’s Unfinished Revolution may lack a sequel for a little longer, but it would be better that the final chapters of Obama’s memoirs contain some achievements.

This text is cross-published with Vostok Cable, a blog published by students at Oxford University. You can visit Vostok Cable here.

Josh Black has an MA in Russian and Eastern European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and now works as a freelance journalist.

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