It’s time for Obama to defy Putin

August 5, 2013

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden leaves President Obama looking weak. Putin meant it that way. His political base likes him thumbing his nose at the American president and he took a gamble that Obama  would not retaliate over a freelance spy.

It might be argued that this is just another Russian mosquito bite, an embarrassing irritation but not a major incident. It makes little difference where Snowden lives under what amounts to house arrest. In Russia, civil rights will be almost as severely curtailed as if he were locked up here. Like the WikiLeaks leaker Julian Assange, self-exiled to one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst. The Russians have already accessed his most damaging information, as did the Chinese before they sent him packing. Even the Guardian, the most ardent conduit of his erudite revelations, must have a data dump to keep it occupied for years.

That does not mean the president should do nothing. Harboring Snowden comes on top of a number of other offensive Russian actions that suggest Obama should draw one of his famous lines in the sand. Most egregiously, Putin has continued to bolster the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria who has used Russian military hardware to kill 100,000 of his own people. Russia not only continues to provide heavy arms, missiles, and aircraft parts that allow Syria to continue bombing civilians in rebel-held cities, it repeatedly vetoes U.N. efforts to broker a peace deal.

The former KGB agent Putin has not met a dictator he doesn’t like. He encourages the mullahs who run Iran to defy American-led efforts to halt its nuclear weapons program. The Iranians in turn back Syria. When NATO intervened to prevent the slaughter of Libyan civilians by Muammar Gaddafi, Putin complained they were over-reaching and condemned the popular uprising against the terrorist leader. When North Korea’s erratic despot Kim Jong-un set off a nuclear explosion earlier this year to tweak Obama’s nose, the Russian scientists were quick to suggest that blasting radiation into the atmosphere was not harmful. To test Obama’s resolve, Russian aircraft have penetrated American airspace over Guam and its submarines have spent weeks exploring the Gulf of Mexico. A NATO plan to arm Poland to counter missile attacks from Iran has been met with threats from Putin that he will attack Poland, just like Stalin and Hitler before him.

Elected to a great extent in response to the revulsion against the unnecessary war in Iraq, Obama has so far met Putin’s saber rattling with sweet reason. He now runs the risk, however, of appearing vacillating in the face of what his close ally Senator Chuck Schumer calls Putin’s “twist of the knife.” That perception reinforces his evident impotence in domestic affairs. Unable to push legislation through Congress, the president is left touring the nation listing at length what House Republicans won’t let him do. To garnish his own reputation, he needs to stand up to the Russian bully. But how?

There are many arguments for doing little or nothing. We need Russia’s cooperation to continue supplying our forces in Afghanistan or face further dependence upon the shaky administration in Pakistan. The U.S. military makes more than 4,000 flights a year through Russian airspace and delivers nearly 50,000 containers of supplies overland. But we are fast winding down our presence in Afghanistan and any inconvenience will be temporary.

Russia still holds large numbers of nuclear weapons and it is in our interest to keep them on track to reduce their overkill capacity. But it is Russia that is keenest on talking about nukes and Congress that is already putting on the brakes. Russia also benefits from cooperation over terrorism. It helped the investigation into the Chechen-American Islamists responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. But Putin stands most to lose if joint efforts over terrorism are slowed. The Islamist war continues in Chechnya and there have been direct threats to the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi in February.

The most obvious means of showing his displeasure at Putin’s sorry catalog of offenses against America is the imminent G20 summit to be held in St. Petersburg early next month. Some senators, including Schumer, have urged Obama to move the meeting elsewhere in protest. Others, like Lindsey Graham, want us to boycott next year’s Winter Games. The president has placed his bilateral meeting with Putin “under review.”

Far better than abandoning an encounter that, to judge by photographs, Putin is not looking forward to, Obama could turn it to his advantage. The president received flak from his own party when he said he admired Ronald Reagan. Now is the time for Obama’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment. He could start, like Reagan, by shrugging off his secret service detail and going walkabout to meet ordinary St. Petersburgers. As Reagan found, there is nothing like shaking hands and laughing with the Russian people to undermine anti-American propaganda.

America doesn’t need Russia’s trade. It is already running a trade deficit of nearly $19 billion a year. So Obama could announce cancellation of the $572 million Russian helicopter deal to equip the Afghan army. He could call Putin’s bluff and invite him to talks about the siting of anti-Iran missiles in Poland, tying his attendance to cooperation over preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons that, thanks to Russian-provided missiles, will reach Israel and U.S. NATO bases in Eastern Europe. He could cancel the $753 million NASA contract with Russia to ferry American astronauts into space. That works out at $63 million per seat. (That is 40 times what a seat in the House of Representatives costs, a bargain at just $1.6 million.) The Russians can’t afford not to take us with them.

The president could stress the absurdity of granting Snowden asylum by insisting on visiting Putin’s strongest adversary, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison on trumped up charges. He could invite Alexei Navalny to his hotel room and invite the press to hear about the anti-corruption campaigner’s experience in Russian prisons and why he thinks a Russian Spring is on the way. He could arrange a photo opportunity with the green campaigner Yevgeniya Chirikova, and dozens of other activists who are targeted by Putin’s secret police. He could welcome a group of gay Russians to talk about the laws that persecute them and to warn the world about the rights they will have to forego if they attend the Winter Olympics.

The president could do worse than give a keynote speech in St. Petersburg on human rights, and the abuse of democratic freedoms by spies posing as whistleblowers, rekindling the memory of the great generation of Soviet dissidents, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, and inviting today’s Russian dissidents to sit in the front row. He could make a fuss of the veteran rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva and the president-in-waiting Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster strong-armed out of challenging Putin for the presidency. He might play mood music before his talk by Pussy Riot, two of whom remain in jail for daring to sing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral and have just had their parole turned down.

There is a lot Obama can do if he really wants to live up to Reagan’s example. But does he have the Gipper’s genius for turning the tables on his opponents? If he does push back against Putin, he will win the admiration of Americans way beyond his own party and will increase his chances of advancing his agenda. He should be bold, like he was when he ordered Operation Neptune Spear that ended the life of Osama bin Laden.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rest in the Siberian Federal District July 21, 2013. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin


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me thinks that the best would be to add VVP to Magnitsky list… besides, it’s hard to believe that VVP’s “political base” keeps its money in rubles…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

if you think your article makes sense then you are clearly uninformed

Posted by motun | Report as abusive

Another Obama “line in the sand”? Really?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

The statement that Putin has ‘threatened to attack Poland, just like Stalin and Hitler before him’ is a wild exaggeration. The Russians have said that they may target Polish missile sites in response, which does not not constitute ‘attacking’ Poland in the same way that targeting American missile sites is not ‘attacking’ the US and the USA targeting Russian sites isn’t ‘attacking’ Russia. Rubbish.

Posted by Nickskellon | Report as abusive

It is sad that this unbalanced, one sided and propagandistic article appears here. Having written intelligentic articles and books on a diversity of international political and economic issues does clearly not mean one is qualified to write on any of such issues, especially when it concerns Russia, a country that has changed so much and writer himself has remained stuck in out-of-date cold war dogmas.

Posted by offline | Report as abusive

In this instance, Putin has done the right thing.

I cannot believe the author of this article almost encouraging US aggression. That is the last thing we want, but the US war-machine (backed by Wall Street) would be all too happy to oblige give half a chance. Fortunately I think that people are beginning to see through the US regime headed by Obama to see the corruption beneath, particularly as we look at some of the atrocities that they committed in Iraq.

Obama should pardon Snowden, that at least might earn him a little bit of respect.

Posted by TocoToucan | Report as abusive

Lots of great ideas in the article but I would bet Obama will do NONE of these things because he is surrounded and advised foreign policy group that is imbued with the spirit of endless “positive engagement” with Russia. I would place my money on enraged gay rights groups worldwide and others to create a PR stink for Russia while the White House issues bland statements.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

N.W. writes “Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst.”

Surely you mean his best!

Posted by rapporteur | Report as abusive

Putin has kicked sand in Obama’s face and like the schoolyard weakling he is, Obama will do nothing. If he tries, he will end up crying like a twelve year old girl. I don’t particularly like Putin but I understand he is standing for Russia whereas Obama stands for Obama, so good on Putin. “The enemy of of enemy is my friend”.

Posted by scullymj | Report as abusive

obamas foreign policy is a disaster. Putin knows he is weak, and is taking advantage of the situation.

Posted by jimwells | Report as abusive

President Obama has enough domestic issues entangled without solutions currently. He behaves not like an adult most of the time. Bad advice could further damage his mind-set.

I hope Obama is not going to take advice as Mr. N. Wapshott’s. Simply because diplomacy is meant to make friends, not enemies.

Mr. Wapshott, respect of one another’s culture, thinking and way of life is better than provocation and incitement. Having more friends instead of enemies can always be more pleasant and comfortable. Trying hard to changing others to your own liking is stupidly wasting effort.

Because of Cold War thinking, the USA and the USSR targeting one another with thousands of nuclear warheads was the stupidest event ever occurred in human history. Any sensible human being should try to avoid this again. After 6 chaotic decades of conflicts, mankind should seek for peace and harmony now.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

…or Mr. Obama could offer Mr. Putin asylum in the United States.

Posted by oarsman | Report as abusive

Anyone who “thinks” Snowden should be released from his involvement in “stealing American Secrets” has absolutely no idea of what “contracts” are signed by the government and individuals who have access to secured information. Snowden is responsible for his acts of everything the government can throw at him. He will never be welcomed back to this country unless he wants to spend a lot of time in a jail. He’s NOT a hero and will never – never be recognized as one!!!

Posted by retiredghost05 | Report as abusive

“To garnish his own reputation, he needs to stand up to the Russian bully.”

This is the dumbest writing and thinking I have seen in, well, in days! There may be many reasons to stand up to Putin, but garnishing his own reputation is a terrible one.

Posted by tbliss | Report as abusive

Obama runs a Modern-Day Stasi State:

Thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we now know that an army of private contractors and the US Military monitors everyone’s phone calls, text messages, stored passwords, GPS positions, FaceBook posts, LinkedIn pages, your keyword searches, web sites visited, and all your inbound and outbound e-mail messages. And they store that forever (under your name) at the US Military’s new massive Utah Data Center. They can even tap into the microphone and/or camera on your smart phone, tablet, laptop, PC, automobile’s OnStar system, xBox and similar Internet connected devices. Rest assured – if it connects to the Internet – the US Military can tap into it. Consider that even when you are behind the closed doors of your bedroom.

From Edward’s vantage point he learned that the NSA monitors Americans “even if you’re not doing anything wrong.” From “just sitting at my desk” Snowden said he had the “authority to wiretap anyone …” … “If I wanted to see your e-mail or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.” He also discovered that the NSA is “using the system to go back in time to discover everything you’ve done.”

All of this is terrifying stuff that confirms much of what has been revealed about NSA surveillance by Bill Binney and his fellow NSA whistle-blowers Tom Drake and Kirk Wiebe.

Snowden said: “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”

Only ignorant people think this is about Manning, Snowden, Assange, Obama, Bush, or that it’s democrat vs. republican. This is not politics as usual.

This is about US Military control of the world.

The ignorant have yet to open their eyes and look at the big picture of what is really happening. I know that reality can be very painful and ignorant people sometimes choose to hide from the reality of this terrible and treasonous criminal situation that is being committed by our government & military leaders. They choose not to educate themselves enough to get all the details of what has happened. The ignorant feel somewhat safer bashing those that have educated themselves about this horrific and treasonous crime that has been committed by Obama and his administration.

America is becoming scary … a N-a.z-i kind of scary.

Posted by SaggyNutzinHD | Report as abusive

Nicholas. If you think your mode of reasoning contains any validity then you are seriously misguided. You should seek assistance

Posted by egli | Report as abusive

The absurdity is wholly on the side of Obama. According to international law Russia has all freedom to offer Snowden asylum. Given the circumstances anybody understanding anything about international relations knew that the probability that Russia would extradite Snowden was close to zero.

That raises the question why Obama is making all this noise about Snowden. It looks mainly lack a serious lack of judgement. It is this lack of judgement that makes Obama look weak – not the lack of extradition of Snowden.

Reagan had a kind of common sense that Obama seems to be missing. Reagan didn’t bother to brood on how America is looking.

Posted by musicmouse | Report as abusive

We need nothing from the Russian government. Blow them off, they are inconsequential in this day and age. They can keep Snowden and save us the trial.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Musicmouse fawns: “Reagan had a kind of common sense that Obama seems to be missing.”

Yes. The kind of ‘common sense’ that sent cash and weapons to help prop up the Mujahideen and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. And make them a world force. The kind that sold long range missiles to Iran and then took the cash and secretly gave it to people like Manuel Noriega and other druglord dictators in Latin America.

Commen sense…. reagan. That’s a good one.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Obama stand up to Putin? What a pipe dream – and the pipe must be filled with wacky-tobacky! We have sent our military into two “wars” that have almost bankrupted our country and too many of our troops were killed or wounded. We back first one and then the other side in other countries and then have to backtrack on those decisions (Egypt, for example). We cozy up to dictators, monarchs if it suits our purpose (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia for examples).

How in the world can we have credibility?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Russia supplies Assad in Syria – the US supplies the military in Egypt. So who is the bad guy? We still support Bahrain in its crackdown on protestors and never said a word when Saudi troops marched into that country to put down the protest in the past.

A “line in the sand”? Putin knows that Obama is not good at drawing lines of any kind – especially not on foreign policy. As for Obama’s “advisors” and cabinet members – if some of them were any dumber, they would have to be watered once a week.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive