Vladimir Putin steps out

The Economist

NEXT week Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama will meet again. In July 2009, the only time the two have met before, Mr Putin—then Russia’s prime minister, now its president—gave the American president an earful on the insults Russia had suffered from America. Mr Putin thinks that the conciliatory steps he took in his first term, especially after September 11th 2001, encountered American aggression: the “orange” revolution in Ukraine, Western support for Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, a missile-defence system. As Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, says, Mr Putin is “sincerely anti-American,” not because of his KGB past, but because of “his experiences with Bush-era America”.

The “reset” by the Obama administration in early 2009 was meant to respond to this by letting bygones be bygones. Mr Obama and his advisers, who included the present American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, hoped that the reset would return the focus of relations to the countries’ shared interests. It coincided with some achievements: a new treaty reducing nuclear arsenals, greater co-operation on sanctions against Iran, an agreement to allow supplies for the war in Afghanistan to pass through Russia and Central Asia. The then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has even described the past three years as “the best period in US-Russia relations in history”.

But is it over? It was never clear if Moscow really believed in the premise of the reset. For many in the Russian foreign-policy establishment, says Angela Stent of Georgetown University, the reset was a one-sided “course correction,” in which Washington came to understand that it had not been treating Moscow properly. Moreover, Mr Putin cannot resist—now, as ever—forceful and confrontational gestures, such as his hostile speech at a security conference in Munich in 2007 or his attempt to blame Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, for the winter protests in Moscow. Changes in bilateral relations have been largely cosmetic. And that has added to the frustration over, for example, Mr Putin’s backing for Syria’s government or a senior Russian general’s statement that the country did not rule out the possibility of a nuclear first strike against missile-defence sites.

The spirit of co-operation that the reset was supposed to engender is being tested by the grim news from Syria and fresh talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in Moscow next week, as well as by the meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Obama on the margins of the G20 summit in Mexico. The most immediate issue is Syria. The Americans and Europeans want Russia to support a managed transition, in which President Bashar Assad would leave power but some of the underlying structures linked to his rule would remain in place. Yet Moscow is resistant to anything that resembles regime change, and is also more pessimistic about what might follow Mr Assad. Moreover Russia’s continued intransigence on Syria, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, has value merely by giving the Kremlin a central part in resolving the crisis. The Russians know that if they give in to Western pressure on Syria “their role deflates considerably”, as the situation would no longer be under their control.

But patience with Russia is running out. This week Mrs Clinton accused the Russians of sending attack helicopters to Syria and said that Russian claims that its weaponry had nothing to do with the fighting in Syria were “patently untrue”. Mr Obama is likely to warn Mr Putin that the Russian position on Syria is no longer credible and that, if Russia does not shift soon, it could be sidelined, perhaps by some foreign military intervention.

On Iran, the interests of the two sides are more aligned both in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and in deterring Israel from launching an attack. The length of the negotiating process with Iran has also brought them closer together. The Russians have been misled and manipulated by the Iranians plenty of times, fraying patience in Moscow over its on-again, off-again relationship with Tehran.

Although Russia is capable of behaving cynically over Syria and Iran, analysts and diplomats in Moscow also genuinely believe they have a more nuanced, less naive understanding of regional issues than their American counterparts. Andrei Klimov of the Duma’s committee on international affairs says that many of Russia’s neighbours are “troublemakers” but that the Americans often “propose solutions to deal with these troublemakers that make the troubles even worse.”

Yet behind this lies an incongruity in the bilateral relationship. The Americans have a list of things that they want from the Russians. But for Russia, the relationship with America is a vehicle not for anything specific but mainly for global prestige and relevance. It is rather the opposite for Europe, which lacks the same strategic importance for Moscow but where geographical proximity and trade relations matter.

This makes the American-Russian relationship weaker, as there are no big constituencies in either country pressing to improve ties. Bashing Russia confers political benefit in the United States. Hence the passage of the “Magnitsky bill” in Congress, which would impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials accused of human-rights violations. That such a law can sail through Congress—there is nothing similar for China—shows how little most lawmakers feel is at stake in relations with Russia.

It is impossible to ignore Mr Putin’s sense of insecurity over his domestic troubles. Protests against his rule have not faded after his election in March as he hoped (see box). For Mr Putin, in times of discomfort, America makes a convenient bogeyman and punch bag. Hence, for example, some outlandish attacks on Mr McFaul for talking to the Russian opposition.

Among American officials there is growing disappointment and irritation with Mr Putin, both for his standoffish attitude (they were flabbergasted when he failed to attend the G8 summit and a bilateral meeting with Mr Obama last month) and for his apparent unwillingness—or inability—to deliver. He may be waiting to see who wins America’s presidential election in November. But many in Washington think he is “full of bluster, and would like to be a big player at the table”, says Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations, but that “he isn’t really up to it.” He could begin to prove otherwise—or not—in Mexico. займы на карту buy viagra online https://zp-pdl.com/online-payday-loans-in-america.php https://zp-pdl.com/emergency-payday-loans.php займ на карту без отказов круглосуточно

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