Despite the wan smiles and a high-minded joint statement about paving the way for a democratic transition in Syria, yesterday's meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin did little to disguise the recent series of setbacks in U.S.-Russian relations. Yes, it's been a pretty ugly couple of months. Why have things fallen apart so quickly?
For some observers, the answer is simple enough: Putin. The notoriously thin-skinned ex-KGB officer, the argument goes, has returned to the Kremlin with zero interest in continuing the "reset" policy promoted by his squishier, iPad-toting predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. "We told you so," suggests a chorus of determinists in both America and Russia. "Putin just doesn't like America, and that's that."
After all, it was Putin who tried to pin responsibility for last December's massive street protests on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then tacitly backed a campaign of harassment against U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. When Russia's top military commander, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, ominously warned that Russia was prepared to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against U.S. missile defense sites in Central Europe, no Russian political heavyweight, least of all Putin, stepped up to say, "Enough with this Cold War silliness!" Yet another shock came when Putin unexpectedly backed out of a planned visit to Washington for a get-to-know-you summit meeting with Obama, followed by the G-8 gathering at Camp David. (The Kremlin's surrogates insisted, not entirely convincingly, that this decision wasn't a snub.)
The problem with this analysis is that it makes things sound worse than they actually are. In fact, Putin has simultaneously acted both pugnaciously and pragmatically in recent months.
Consider his first big, post-election foreign policy initiative: the opening of a NATO logistics facility deep in the Russian heartland for troops and equipment leaving Afghanistan. That move angered communists and nationalists alike, but delighted Pentagon logistics experts frustrated by the continued closure of the ground lines of communication through Pakistan during a crucial phase of the U.S. drawdown. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian diplomats have worked closely behind the scenes on the blueprint that led to this week's important talks on Iran's nuclear program in Moscow. They also helped formulate former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's six-point plan to resolve the Syria crisis. If recent reports in the New York Times are to be believed, there is still hope at the highest levels of the Obama administration of enlisting the Russians to coax Bashar al-Assad into giving up power via a Yemen-style political transition. (The Russians, for their part, probably assume that Assad can shoot his way out of the crisis, and that he wouldn't listen to them anyway given how little leverage Moscow has over the regime.)
Which brings us to a second possible culprit for the recent surge in tensions between the United States and Russia: the crisis in Syria. Last week, Clinton made the bombshell accusation that Russia was supplying Syria with attack helicopters and dismissed as "patently untrue" the Russian government's repeated denials that its arms deals have had no impact on the bloody conflict. To drive that point home, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "On a daily basis, on an hourly basis, we are seeing Russian and Soviet-made weaponry used against civilians in towns all across Syria." Russian officials tried to muddy Clinton's accusation, arguing that Russia was merely refurbishing helicopters sold to the Syrians "many years ago" while also insisting that the bulk of Russian military aid to Syria consists of advanced air-defense and anti-ship weapons systems ill-suited to the current conflict.
As morally infuriating as Russia's backing of the Syrian regime may be, it's worth considering whether the Obama administration may have a couple of ulterior motives for pinning at least some of the responsibility for Syria's lurch toward full-scale civil war on the Russians. In the short-term, by stoking fears of a proxy war reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War, the Obama administration is building its argument that providing military aid to the Syrian rebels -- as some congressional critics have demanded -- will only add to the militarization of the conflict. In the long-term, U.S. officials may be keeping the option of intervening open by planting the seed for the eventual creation of a new legal mechanism for military intervention that bypasses the hopelessly deadlocked U.N. Security Council.