What does Obama’s snub mean for U.S.-Russia relations?
Earlier this week, Barack Obama announced that he won’t be meeting with Vladimir Putin in advance of the September G20 summit in St. Petersburg. That was, at least in part, a response to Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum, a move that left the White House “extremely disappointed.” So what will the fallout be? Are the media’s Cold War comparisons appropriate?
No. This episode will have limited impact on an already toxic bilateral relationship that matters increasingly less around the world.
Obama made the right decision — and more importantly, he did it at the right time. By snubbing Putin when he did, Obama will allow Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts to work back up from this low-water mark when they meet this week. If he had waited to snub Putin, it would unwind any progress that might come out of the current meetings. Obama clearly understands there is more room for productivity among senior diplomats than between the heads of state, where the relationship has always been icy, and any shortcomings are higher profile.
So the relationship only seems to be getting worse. Despite a very strong first term as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Russia is the biggest policy misstep she made. (Benghazi was far more politicized, but it was not her doing.) I’m surprised this failed diplomacy hasn’t gotten more coverage.
But the problem isn’t U.S.-Russia: it’s Russia itself. (That’s in stark contrast with U.S.-China relations, where there are material issues in the bilateral dynamic itself that make the partnership much feebler than the sum of its parts). Today, the situation in Russia makes unpredictable foreign policy decisions increasingly inevitable. Institutions have been undermined by corruption and a centralization of power at the very top. We see massive brain drain and capital flight. On top of that, Russia’s vast energy wealth is now looking like it will be less useful long-term than had been presumed. That’s in part because of the North American energy revolution that looks set to keep expanding supply. Putin’s response to all of this? Rather than opting for reform, he has decided to double down, tightening his control and letting the budget balloon to levels where ever-higher oil prices are needed for it to be balanced. This shortsighted approach can provide greater stability now, but it just exacerbates the worsening prospects for Russia in terms of diplomacy and economic trajectory down the road.
Don’t read too far into Obama’s snub. It doesn’t change the structural dynamics in a bilateral relationship that is slowly worsening, and slowly fading in importance. The real danger? As the domestic situation in Russia worsens, expect the country to lash out. That’s what happens when decisions are made by one increasingly quixotic (and despotic) individual.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque