US-Russian relations: nothing to talk about

Russian-US relations seem destined to remain frosty.  The recent bilateral consultations between the two ministers of defense and foreign affairs seem to have been constructive – but they were immediately followed by Barack Obama’s characterization of Vladimir Putin as a “a bored kid in the back of the classroom,” and his rejection of a the idea of a separate meeting during the “Big Twenty” summit in St. Petersburg.

But in fact there was nothing particularly novel about the American president’s rebuff of what looked to be an inevitable meeting with his Russian counterpart.  Putin and Obama had already exchanged such “pleasantries” once before in 2012: Putin did not attend the “Big Eight” summit at Camp David and Obama passed up the APEC summit in Vladivostok.  However, despite the repetition in form, the content of Obama’s latest démarche is different.  Relations between Russia and the US have been changing, and although current events could hardly be described as a rush toward confrontation, the growing mutual tension is obvious.

The meeting between the Russian ministers of defense and foreign affairs, Sergei Shoygu and Sergei Lavrov, and their American counterparts, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, was very productive, thus Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin was unexpected. Photo: EPA
The meeting between the Russian ministers of defense and foreign affairs, Sergei Shoygu and Sergei Lavrov, and their American counterparts, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, was very productive, thus Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin was unexpected.
Photo: EPA

Obama will not meet with Putin, primarily because he would have certainly needed to raise a number of extremely uncomfortable issues at such a meeting.  Snowden, sexual minorities, Syria – imagine what kind of howl would be heard from the US press if Obama did not present an unequivocal, aggressively moralizing statement on these topics while in Moscow?  But bringing up these subjects once again would mean annoying Putin anew.  Would it really be worth setting up a meeting for the sake of such a dubious outcome?

Imagine your average smart-mouthed journalist at the final press conference asking Putin what right Moscow has to shelter a criminal like Snowden or whether athletes at the Sochi Olympics will be persecuted for speaking out in support of Russian homosexuals.  Putin would make one of his typical, “why are you supporting cannibals?” jokes and Obama would be forced into an awkward silence or even more awkward excuses.  Of course, that’s exactly the TV image the administration in Washington needs, given the fact that it’s been skittering from one huge scandal to another for the past six to twelve months – from the killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi to tax audits that zero in on Republican-leaning NGOs.  In these circumstances it makes no sense to provide another opportunity for criticism, since domestically Obama reaps far more benefit from playing the tough guy who can hold his own when talking with “those Russians.”  But this toughness is rooted in weakness, not strength, and it is in no way helpful for bilateral relations because it demonstrates the dependence of America’s Russia policy on the domestic political environment.  In other words, the Russian establishment has its suspicions confirmed that serious, long-term negotiations on complex issues are not possible with Americans.

However, there are bigger issues than just the problems of the Obama administration.  Overall, Americans have a poor idea these days of ​​how to conduct a dialog with Russia.  In the past ten years, prominent American experts have repeatedly declared that the old relationship model, which was built on moralizing and speaking from a position of strength, has long been outdated, but politicians do not seem to be able to manage to break away from it.  (The most recent clear manifestation of this desire to stick to the old way of doing things was seen when the Magnitsky Act was adopted in the US at the same time that the discriminatory Jackson–Vanik Amendment was repealed.)  Meanwhile, Washington has been left without an ideological justification for the continuation of this policy.

The fact is that in the last year Russia has challenged the US on several occasions in an area where the Americans are accustomed to dominance – namely ethical issues.  It all began with the ban on Americans adopting Russian children.  That ban received wide international publicity when it revealed the nasty side of this picture in the US.  For example, one fact that entered the global public domain was the existence of special camps in the United States for children who have been abandoned by their adoptive parents, such as the Ranch for Kids in Montana.

Then, despite its best efforts, the US found itself on the “wrong side of history” in the Middle East.  America’s initial enthusiasm for the Arab revolution backfired in Libya with the murder of the US ambassador, in Egypt – with its de-facto support of two military coups (the army’s overthrow of Egyptian presidents Mubarak and then Morsi), and in Syria – when the US threw in its lot with the Al-Qaeda militants and cannibals.  Although the Americans could previously at least maintain a facade of success in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq, in the Middle East their chosen policy has become an obvious fiasco.

The Edward Snowden affair has irrevocably undermined American credibility on human-rights issues. Photo: EPA
The Edward Snowden affair has irrevocably undermined American credibility on human-rights issues.
Photo: EPA

The Snowden issue not only exposed the mechanisms of the global electronic surveillance being carried out by the US National Security Agency, it also spurred Washington to commit an egregious violation of international law – under pressure from overseas, Europeans were forced to ground a flight carrying the Bolivian president and conduct a coercive inspection of the aircraft.  Such behavior from President Obama (a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize) reduced America’s international standing to a new low.

Finally, the Russian law prohibiting the distribution of homosexual propaganda to minors dealt a blow to the “moral leadership” of the West and to American hegemony most of all.  Russia defied the clear mainstream opinion in Western politics.  And because there is strong opposition to this broad interpretation of human rights (the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has repeatedly stated that “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”) even in the West, Russia has demonstrated the possibility of fundamentally different approaches.  This has proved to be yet another painful jolt for the current – Democratic – administration in the US.  In one year, the very foundation of American ideological pressure on Russia has been completely destroyed.

But probably if Washington had had hopes that a personal meeting between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the “Big Twenty” summit could have offered real benefits to the United States, the American president might have overlooked these arguments and gone to Moscow anyway.  But the fact is that no breakthrough solutions were anticipated that could justify a softening of Obama’s stance.

In recent years all that Washington has really wanted from Russia is Moscow’s consent to a new round of radical reductions (by one-third) in strategic nuclear weapons.  Americans are trying to link this reduction to some very vague promises to limit the deployment of their missile defense systems and/or some kind of information exchange.  However, Russia is flatly refusing to begin negotiating new strategic arms reductions, believing that the existing agreements already set the number of strategic nuclear forces at an optimal level (1,500 nuclear warheads).  After all, the US already has such a large conventional (non-nuclear) arsenal of precision-guided weapons (and the capability to manufacture more) that Russia needs its own strategic nuclear forces in order to maintain strategic parity with the US.

Once again it must be stated: Russia and the US have nothing to talk about – no new agenda addressing issues beyond strategic weapons has been set.  For the past fifteen years analysts on both sides of the Atlantic have come to this same conclusion, pointing out the need to expand economic cooperation that could form the basis for a new relationship as well as the need for a dialog to develop a new vision for the future of the world, which could be used to create an entirely new agenda for bilateral relations.  But years pass and nothing changes.

Why is this?  Let’s examine what’s happening to America’s international ties.

Europe.  A source of pride in the past, this transatlantic partnership has seen a steady decline.  The countries of Europe remain the the US zone of influence, but are more of a liability than an asset.  Attempts to move the US-EU relationship to a new level by establishing a trading bloc will inevitably stumble against obstacles such as the economic crisis, the progressive erosion of the foundations of the European Union, and the new role of Germany.  Whether these can be overcome is an open question.

The Middle East.  The system of alliances is ripping apart at the seams.  America has personally pushed Egypt – its main ally in the Arab world – into chaos.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar at some point found themselves in a turbulent region with rival projects on their hands – the Salafists and moderate Islamists, respectively.  Turkey chartered its own course long ago, although clearly without much success.  Relations with Israel are strained to the breaking point.  In Iraq, US forces recently withdrew, ending their occupation of that country and all the rules of that genre would seem to dictate that the nation should be a loyal ally – but it is disintegrating as we watch.  And looming above it all is Iran, a country there would seem a clear need to befriend, but which the American establishment stubbornly persists in seeing as the main regional enemy of the United States.

Central and South Asia.  India is possibly America’s most low-maintenance foreign-policy partner.  But this bright spot is entirely offset by the headaches caused by Afghanistan and Pakistan, as seen in the convoluted relationships that Americans cannot untangle because, as we see again and again, they are not playing by their own rules.

Africa.  The Americans are without question losing Africa to the Chinese.

Latin America.  A region that was once their own backyard is now completely independent.  Today’s agenda focuses on the Latinization of the US, not American influence on Latin America.

China.  The US relationship with this growing giant is gradually coasting toward confrontation, not of the type seen in a cold war of course, but certainly a mild, mutual state of self-restraint.

Japan.  The strategic relationship with this important country hangs by a delicate thread known as North Korea.  There can be no tranquility in a region shared with this troublemaker, forcing Japan, and simultaneously South Korea, to drift to the Chinese much more quickly and irrevocably.

Is there any hope for the relationship between Russia and the US?  There is.  Quite a lot.  But it can only be fulfilled if American politicians find the courage to align their foreign policy with reality.  Until then, no worthwhile negotiation topics for the Russian and American presidents are likely to emerge, and Russia can do nothing but wait.  Thus, the suspension of the dialog announced by President Obama is well-timed.

Source in Russian: Expert Magazine

Translated by ORIENTAL REVIEW with abridgements. Reprints are welcomed with the reference to OR.

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