No Show, Over Snowden

So after much speculation, President Obama has decided he will not now meet with his Russian counterpart ahead of the G20 conference next month. The White House has announced that this is for a variety of reasons and a general lack of progress on a wide range of issues, including Syria.

Certainly there are a number of issues that are negatively impacting US-Russian relations at present and the Syrian situation is one of them. However, without the Snowden incident, the meeting would likely have gone ahead. The White House is rolling out other phantom issues to present this as less of a knee-jerk reaction, but that is what it is. If the White House wishes to cancel the meeting to make a specific point, then it should admit as much.

As it is, this cancellation is largely symbolic. The meeting was never being billed as a high-profile summit exactly, merely a handy opportunity to get together whilst Obama was in the neighbourhood.  Clearly, there is a great deal of posturing going on here. Putin wishes to reassert Russian influence on the world stage and so stood up to the United States by provided Snowden with asylum. At this point he is more interested in playing hardball than engaging in diplomatic niceties with President Obama.

Obama is sending several messages. Internationally he is demonstrating a growing frustration with the Russian leader, while domestically he is attempting to demonstrate resolve as well as toughness in the face of Russian aggression. His dealings with Russia have been a mixed bag to date. He had the benefit of dealing with Medvedev initially, but the true nature of Russian politics was revealed in Obama’s open microphone disaster that acknowledged Putin’s continuing influence and hinted at Obama’s weakness.

Obama’s every move in regard to Russia is made as he rapidly enters Lame-Duck territory. This is nothing personal, but as his second term ticks by, more and more eyes are turning to 2016 and his eventual successor. The Kremlin is aware of this and will not be in any great hurry to curry favour with a president who will be out of office in 40 months. He does so with a new foreign policy team, including Samantha Power and Susan Rice, now advising the president daily as his national security adviser. Both have been very quiet on this issue, however, with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes front and centre. It is a shame he was passed over for the top job for what were clearly political considerations.

The Snowden affair is proving to be embarrassing and troublesome for all concerned and so far no one is emerging with their reputations intact. The US appears vindictive to many for pursuing Snowden; the Russians appeared to be dithering before finally acquiescing to grant Snowden asylum; while Snowden’s claims to be defending freedoms and liberties has taken a pounding by his choice of Russia as a location from which to defend such values.

Speaking to Jay Leno, hardly an IR specialist, the president noted last night that Russia is sinking back into a Cold War mentality. Such statements are unhelpful and are indicative of the poor state of relations that show no sign of improving any time soon. We have actually come along way since the Cold War, as my forthcoming book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy, will demonstrate. The fact that this meeting is being cancelled over Russia’s granting of asylum to an American citizen, rather than over the downing of a U2, is an indication of this.

Putin has never been a soft and cuddly individual and is no Boris Yeltsin, but are things as bad as during the Cold War? Of course not. Is Russia putting its national interest ahead of Obama’s political needs? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t it?

President Obama risks making this too personal. He’d best not get into a struggle with Putin, as it will only make things worse, and when push comes to shove, the former community organiser may find an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel to be a dangerous adversary.

However, this decision, while not helping matters, is not likely to have a knock-on effect. The two men will both be at the G20 and may even have meetings there. No one should expect a repeat of the Olympic boycott of 1980 as the Russians haven’t invaded anywhere…yet!

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