Argument

The Snowden Sideshow

If you think U.S.-Russian relations are bad now, think back to 2008.

On August 7, the White House finally ended the suspense about whether or not President Barack Obama would visit Moscow after the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg this September. "Following a careful review begun in July," a statement by the president's press secretary read, "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."

The timing couldn't have been more symbolic. It was five years ago today that the sporadic firefights in South Ossetia and political fireworks between Moscow and Tbilisi devolved into a full-blown war, marking the nadir of post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relations. During the conflict that August, the U.S. principals committee -- which includes the president, vice president, and other senior decision makers -- considered the possibility of using military force to prevent Russia from continuing its assault on Georgia. Bombardment of the tunnel that Russian troops used to move into South Ossetia and other "surgical strikes" were among the options that were discussed and subsequently rejected.

Contemplating a war that would likely have resulted in nuclear Armageddon -- even if the option was rejected -- puts Obama's snub to Putin in perspective. Clearly, if the cancelation of a meeting represents the low point of relations in 2013, it also signals how far the two former Cold War adversaries have come since 2008.

The usual chorus of reset bashers, led by basher-in-chief Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), will of course seize on Obama's decision in order to proclaim that they were right all along: The reset was a woefully naïve, pointless exercise in covering up our fundamental differences with a Russian government that is bent on opposing U.S. interests abroad and crushing democracy at home.

Fortunately for the Obama administration, this caricature bears little resemblance to reality. Obama's Russia policy did produce a long list of important results, from the New START agreement, which verifiably reduced both countries' nuclear arsenals, to Russian WTO membership, which signaled Russia's integration into the global economic order. And while the space for pluralism in the Russian public sphere has narrowed significantly since Putin's return to the presidency, Russia is not North Korea -- or even neighboring Belarus. And despite notable differences over issues like the conflict in Syria, Russia has actually been a crucial partner for achieving U.S. objectives internationally. Just take the agreements Obama reached with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 that allowed for overflights and rail-based transit through Russia to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Without that northern route, it's hard to imagine the U.S. risking closure of the other major transit route -- through Pakistan -- with the operation to take out Osama bin Laden.

So why pull the plug on a summit with Putin -- other than the desire to avoid another painfully awkward interaction? (At their last meeting, on the sidelines of the G8 in Northern Ireland, Putin seemed to revel in the opportunity to reject Obama's attempts at bonhomie.) Although the Kremlin has been quick to frame the cancellation as a U.S. overreaction to its decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the truth is that the summit was on the verge of being scrapped even before the former NSA contractor reached the Sheremetyevo airport transit lounge.

After his reelection last year, Obama made a concerted effort to revive the reset, which had lost steam following a series of setbacks in 2012, including the booting out of USAID and Putin's decision to use anti-American rhetoric to mobilize his electorate for his own reelection effort. In April, Obama dispatched National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Moscow with a letter addressed to Putin outlining a framework for cooperation on missile defense. Secretary of State John Kerry has met several times with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and visited Moscow in May, primarily to push ahead on a political settlement in Syria. Obama even proposed new mutual reductions of deployed strategic nuclear warheads in his Berlin speech in June -- immediately following his bilateral meeting with Putin at the G8.

Despite the infamous body language, the tête-à-tête did produce some notable results, including a deal on bilateral cyber confidence-building measures and a successor to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement, which kept bilateral nonproliferation efforts on track. But beyond that, the bilateral agenda seems as barren as K Street in August. Moscow has yet to present a counterproposal to Obama's April offer on missile defense cooperation and responded to the U.S. president's Berlin speech with a pronounced lack of interest -- the Kremlin has not even signaled willingness to engage in new negotiations, let alone interest in rapidly concluding a follow-on agreement to New START. And even on an issue that Putin himself says he is interested in -- boosting bilateral trade and investment with Washington -- there has been a combination of deafening silence and working-level backsliding on commitments made at the top.

So the question of "why bother" was already hanging in the Beltway's sweltering summer air before Snowden decided that Moscow would be good spot to cool his heels. Russia's decision to grant him temporary asylum was just the final nail in the coffin. But the Snowden episode is perhaps more important because it throws into relief the deep-seated pathologies of U.S.-Russia relations. His extended stay in Russia was an outcome that neither government wanted -- whatever dividends Snowden's laptops provided Russian intelligence services aside -- but both governments took steps that made it inevitable. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Snowden affair confirmed that both Moscow and Washington are incapable of genuine partnership on politically charged matters. That would require taking into account the peculiarities of the other's circumstances, accommodating those when possible, and seeking common ground -- rather than making demands and expecting concessions. Although the Obama administration's private communications with the Russian government were likely much more nuanced, Washington's collective response to Snowden's initial appearance in Sheremetyevo was heard in Moscow as a petulant ultimatum. The more that voices from inside the Beltway made demands on the Kremlin, the harder it became for Moscow to do anything but flip Washington the bird. Doing otherwise would have been tantamount to caving in to the United States -- as politically damaging in Moscow as the reverse would be in Washington. 

The irony was that Putin believed he had found a way out -- conditioning Snowden's stay on a pledge not to harm U.S. interests. From his perspective, this was a real concession, even though it seemed ludicrous in Washington. So there was genuine surprise in Moscow when Washington did what anyone here could have told the Russians that it would: ridicule, reject, or ignore the move. Indeed, some saw the offer as Putin having a laugh at Obama's expense. This mutual tone-deafness might seem like material for study in cross-cultural communication -- if only the consequences weren't so serious.

The Snowden affair also exposes the mutual hostility of large swaths of the national security establishment in both countries. Published accounts have alleged that it was the Russian intelligence services' instinct to reject any and all U.S. requests -- in this case, to block the former NSA contractor from boarding flights, an entreaty allegedly made of all countries to which Snowden could have flown directly from Hong Kong -- that explains why Snowden ended up in Moscow. The underlying mutual suspicion was demonstrated again in the early July grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane: Clearly, the United States believed that Russian intelligence services could have surreptitiously ferreted Snowden onto the plane in the first place.

Finally, Washington's snickering about the irony of Snowden's "choice" of Russia demonstrates the way in which perceptions about Russia's troubled post-Soviet political transition often hamper bilateral ties. Yes, the Russian government, especially in the last two years, has often cracked down on freedom of expression and imposed limits on civil society. But Russia does not espouse an ideology that is inimical to U.S. civic values in the way that the Soviet Union did. Russian politics and society are still in a state of transformation after 75 years of Soviet communism. The end point remains unknown, and the path has not been linear. But ridicule and finger wagging from Washington are unlikely to nudge it in the right direction.

On the Jay Leno show on August 6, Obama hinted at the next day's news: "There have been times where [the Russians] slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," he said. "And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is: That's the past and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do." Obama is certainly right that the two countries should be thinking about the future. But there are reasons -- rooted in the past, for sure, but real reasons nonetheless -- why the U.S. and Russia do not cooperate more effectively. Until and unless both sides make a serious joint effort to address the underlying pathologies in the relationship -- something way beyond Obama's reset -- setbacks like the summit cancellation will be inevitable.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Vlad the Impaler

Obama may have canceled a summit, but when it comes to power politics there's only one master.

It's official: President Barack Obama showed President Vladimir Putin his tough side by canceling out of the bilateral summit in Moscow. In yet another of those carefully calibrated messages the "realists" in the White House commend themselves for sending, the leader of the Free World will not give Russia's leader the benefit of His Grace one-on-one (oh, but he'll still participate in the St. Petersburg G-20 summit).

What a bold move. Except for the fact that Putin has little to gain from a bilateral summit with the United States just now. What are the deliverables Russia could expect from a face to face? There are no policy issues ripe for agreement. Putin could expect to be harangued by Obama about Edward Snowden (we extradite criminals to you without a treaty), Syria (end your lucrative defense supplies and use your influence with Assad to create an outcome you don't want and set a precedent you may suffer from), visa liberalization (not after Boston), gay rights ("I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them"), and nuclear reductions (a safer world is in all our interests even if it takes away your only military leverage). Who wouldn't want to skip out on that meeting?

Putin may well benefit from discomfiting the American president, but he achieved that only weeks ago at their bilateral meeting in Ireland, where news stories carried pictures of tense, dissatisfied expressions and stories of stalemate, and in the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. No need to stoke those embers again so soon, especially if Obama might step on Putin's preferred story line that by granting asylum he's preventing Snowden from revealing damaging information about the United States. Putin might like to play up supposed American hypocrisy, but you can't fault his understanding of realism: the man has an unapologetic insistence that goals come before morals. 

There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia's authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest -- the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies -- in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy). Realists would never make that trade. In classic liberal fashion, Obama is constraining American power by rules and norms to which all states could be subjected.

The reason President Obama's Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal. It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests. All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.

Why has Russia policy gone so wrong? Not for lack of effort or desire for a fresh start. The Obama administration rightly set out in 2008 to refashion U.S.-Russian relations, which were in a dismal state after years of mutual disappointment and creeping authoritarianism in Moscow. One of the benefits of changes in government is a routine reevaluation of policies and the sense of a new beginning. President Bill Clinton tried to build a solid partnership with President Boris Yeltsin. President George W. Bush, too, took his chance, saying after his first early meeting with Russia's leader that he had looked into Putin's eyes and could see his soul.

The Obama administration put talent on the team for this problem: Mike McFaul is both a serious scholar of Russia and an ardent advocate of democratization who, before joining the Obama campaign, had run an important study of the opportunity cost to the Russian economy of Putin's governance. In showing quantitatively the ways authoritarian policies inhibited economic growth, the study up-ended Putin's argument that his policies were responsible for increased Russian prosperity. 

But, of course, McFaul is a poor choice of advisor to the president and plenipotentiary to Moscow if getting along with Putin's Russia is the administration's aim. If realists were actually in control of Obama policies, he wouldn't have been nominated. Belief that our values are universal -- that all people deserve and yearn for freedom -- and can take root even in the Russian tundra would have been disqualifying. No amount of private correspondence and Tom Donilon's shuttle diplomacy makes up for it.

Liberals are ignoring an important reality about Putin's Russia, which is that he has the consent of the majority of Russian people. According to a Pew poll, 56 percent of Russians report themselves satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election that swapped Medvedev and Putin. Seventy-two percent of Russians support Putin and his policies, a level of public endorsement Obama can only dream of. Fifty-seven percent of Russians consider a strong leader more important than democracy; a 25 percent margin over those who believe democracy is essential. And by a margin of 75 percent to 19 percent, Russians consider a strong economy more important than democracy.

Much as we might hope Russian reformers force progress, American policies need to acknowledge that Russians are mostly satisfied with the governance they have (and thus get the one they deserve). The Pew polling indicates that economic growth and social mobility are the bases of Putin's public support. And unless Washington can craft policies that affect those variables, it ought not expect the Putin government to be responsive to our appeals.

The Obama White House likes to think of itself as full of foreign policy realists. But realism, as it exists in international relations theory, has three main tenets: 1) power calculations as the metric of importance in understanding state behavior; 2) willingness to discard policies that are not advancing one's interests; and 3) the willingness to use one's advantages to threaten and enforce preferences on other states. For all their pretensions to realism, the Obama administration does none of these three things well.

The White House has been willing to sacrifice some U.S. interests and allies for the cause of U.S.-Russia comity. It refuses to intervene in Syria or anywhere else without a United Nations Security Council resolution. It cancelled the anti-ballistic missile deployments to Europe that NATO had agreed to. And it has prioritized issues to some extent, placing cooperation on Iran sanctions above European missile defenses and continuing to pull Georgia westward. But the administration has allowed lesser events like Libya, where we were duplicitous in gaining Russian consent for U.N. action, and half-hearted endorsement of congressional activism on the Magnitsky Act to foster Russian resentment.

Moreover, the compromises the Obama White House has made are consistent with the administration's overall policy preferences: avoiding foreign interventions wherever possible, and putting "diplomacy" before security on missile defense. But a better test of realism is when it requires compromising core tenets of either principle or policy. Handing over Syria's rebel leadership so Assad can consolidate his grip and "end the human suffering" of that civil war would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side, agreeing to write off Georgia's western aspirations for Moscow allowing a U.N. intervention in Syria would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side of the flip side, arming Caucasian separatists to aggravate Russia's security problems would be a realist move.

Putin has an economy seemingly incapable of diversification, dependent on high oil prices and current demand levels. And, like China, it has a public that's politically quiescent as long as standards of living are rising fast. But these are major weaknesses that Washington either doesn't want to seize upon, or doesn't have the ingenuity to figure out how to affect. Add to these the debilitating brain drain of technologists and creative types, business practices that are unlawful and predatory, and a foreign policy that's seen -- not just by the United States -- as bad guys keeping bad guys in power, and you have a choice of levers.

Instead of a Nixonian ruthlessness that presses our advantages or identifies common interests and sells off issues (and allies) of lesser importance to achieve them, the Obama administration has become a continuation of the Bush administration in Russia policy: a bossy liberal, condescendingly explaining to Moscow that if only they understood their true interests as we understand their true interests, they would adopt our policies.

But Putin has already made his own pivot, disavowing the values on which "Western" (by which is meant free) societies are based, and the Russia people are willing to permit it. President Obama may think he's sent a tough message to Putin that actions have consequences, and that keeping Snowden means a cold shoulder -- but when it comes to playing the realist chess game, he's got a lot to learn from grandmaster in Moscow.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images