It’s time for Obama to defy Putin
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