It was probably inevitable that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin would not be sitting down for a one-to-one meeting in September. The US president had made the Snowden case into a ‘red line’ issue and Putin had neither the grounds nor the desire to back down. The way this decision was made, though, underlines what is wrong with so much of US policy towards Russia, the degree to which it is rooted in a failure to come to terms with Putin and his approach and eschew half-measures.
Let’s put aside the sanctimonious hypocrisy of treating Snowden as if he were somehow a special case. Either he is a whistleblower–in which case his asylum case might well be considered to have merit–or else he is best considered a spy–and when does any country hand over a potential defector? Somehow, though, while the White House was willing to stomach the Kremlin’s persecution of its dissidents, its continued support for Assad’s regime in Syria and its staunch defense of crooks in the elite, the Snowden case was special.
Fair enough; Snowden’s revelations were undoubtedly embarrassing–how terrible for the American people to find out how far their government spied on them and how they had been lied to–and maybe really did have genuine operational security implications. (Although that’s one of those claims easy to make, hard to prove.)
However, the actual response ended up bearing all the hallmarks of the classic diplomatic half-measure, as the US government seemed torn between feeling it had to do something, but not wanting to pick a fight. So Obama is not going to Moscow, but is still going to St Petersburg for the G-20 summit. He will not be meeting Putin, but Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and other meetings between officials continue as before. Obama won’t be meeting Putin in September, but the summit is only “postponed,” not cancelled.
If the Americans felt they had to do something (and Obama had left himself little alternative), then there were options. Had Obama stayed away from the G-20 summit as a whole would in some ways have been cutting off his nose to spite Putin’s face, but it would have been a very powerful signal of US displeasure.
But what if Obama had been willing to go and tell Putin what his concerns were face to face? It was striking that the official communique about the postponement only mentions Snowden as a contributing factor; instead it places the main emphasis on a failure to see eye to eye:
“Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September. We value the achievements made with Russia in the President’s first term, including the New START Treaty, and cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. However, given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.”
I can understand why politicians like happy summits: broad smiles, congenial photo ops, signing agreements their officials have concluded, swapping gifts. But these are essentially pointless political gestures; they have a minor value in developing the atmospherics in bilateral relations, but they largely reflect rather than build good relations. But it should not, need not be that way. Especially in the early years of Gorbachev, he met with such ardent and outspoken anti-Communists as Thatcher and, especially, Reagan and they debated, argued, disagreed. The world did not end; quite the opposite, these interactions helped push Gorbachev towards reform and forged an unlikely Ronnie-Gorby axis.
Of course, Putin is no Gorbachev. He is a prickly figure, insecure behind his veneer of macho inscrutability. If he knew Obama was coming willing and ready to thrash out issues of disagreement, he might even be tempted to call it off himself, and the sight of the master of the Kremlin blinking would have heartened his critics at home and weakened him abroad. Failing that, at least he would be forced to listen to someone other than his silovik cronies and briefers, an increasingly rare occurrence as he cloisters himself away in his mental oprichnina, detaching himself from a Russia and a world that fails to act as he believes it should.
But it is not to be. Instead, the White House has chosen a compromise that, as compromises often are, is not disastrous but neither is it helpful. It is enough to anger Putin–that insecurity means that he is always conscious of slights, real and assumed–but not enough to suggest the USA is serious. Instead, he knows he can ride it out and today’s headlines will soon be forgotten. The irony is that the “monopolar” power the Kremlin regularly accuses of exerting an unhealthy and unhelpful “hegemony” over global politics, a country that Russia needs far more than the other way round, finds itself unable to steel itself either to accept Putin for what he is or to punish him for it.