The joint statement released by presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama after their meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, is a masterpiece of diplomatic correctness. Perfectly neutral and entirely constructive in tone, it sounds as if it were made by leaders trying not to say or do anything that could set off an avalanche. In short, they followed the first rule of medicine: “Do no harm.”
Putin has not met with the U.S. president for nearly three years, since early 2009, when Obama first came to Moscow and Putin was prime minister. It was a remarkable meeting. In response to Obama’s polite greeting, Putin delivered a very emotional speech lasting 45 minutes, addressing the Kremlin’s complaints against Washington. Putin last spoke with Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, though not about sports. He demanded that George Bush stop Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had launched a war against South Ossetia that day. Bush would not cooperate on this.
The last time Putin as president held full-scale talks with his American counterpart was in Sochi in April 2008, when Putin and Bush adopted a framework declaration on U.S.-Russian relations. It was a balanced and positive document that included the agenda for the future reset policy. The collapse of bilateral relations later that summer was largely due to the fact that practical policy, in particular U.S. policy, veered dramatically away from the partners’ constructive plans. In other words, Moscow decided that it had been deceived by Washington.
Unfortunately for bilateral relations, two of the strategic priorities that the Bush Administration saw as part of its foreign policy legacy had a direct bearing on Russian interests: drawing Georgia and Ukraine into the NATO orbit and deploying missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The August 2008 war in South Ossetia was a logical consequence of the attempts to translate these priorities to reality.
Russian-U.S. relations under Putin and Bush culminated in a fatal loss of Russian trust in the United States, which has continued to affect bilateral relations to this day. The Russian president is convinced that no gentlemanly agreements or heart-to-heart talks are possible with Americans, only tough and lengthy bargaining for legally binding agreements.
On the other hand, the reset policy launched in 2009 became possible only when Moscow decided that Obama, unlike his predecessor, would keep his word. Obama promised to review Bush’s missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, and he has done so. Moscow has shown that it is always willing to reciprocate. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia would look into approving sanctions against Iran the very next day after Obama buried Bush’s missile defense initiative in Eastern Europe.
But the U.S.-Russian relationship has now become strained and the fruits of the reset policy have spoiled. Putin refused to attend the G8 summit at Camp David after Obama said he would not attend APEC Leaders’ Week in Vladivostok. Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov never tire of exchanging words over Syria. Rosoboronexport has been accused by U.S. senators of aiding in Iran’s missile program.
The U.S. Congress will likely approve legislation to normalize trade relations with Russia by repealing the obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment. However, the new legislation is to be accompanied by the passage of the Magnitsky Act allowing sanctions against individuals who were allegedly involved in the death of a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009 and similar crimes.
Given the U.S. criticism of Russia over the new Assembly Law and the police searches of the homes of several opposition leaders, the missile defense dead end and the now customary diplomatic scandals involving Ambassador Michael McFaul, the general picture of U.S.-Russian relations looks gloomy. But in actual fact it is better than it seems, as the meeting in Mexico has shown.
Tough bargaining with elements of propaganda warfare aimed at forcing the opponent to compromise is normal practice in relations between great powers. As they say, “Nothing personal.” But differences over Syria and Iran are really important, because the situation in these countries is approaching a showdown. Although U.S.-Russian relations are far from friendly, they are not unusually hostile either.
The important thing is what the U.S. administration does to minimize damage from its political sorties. The State Department and the White House have publicly supported the Republican advocates of the Magnitsky Act, while at the same time trying to limit its negative effect. The State Department adopted its own, reportedly short, Magnitsky list last year to prevent Congress from denying entry visas to Russians indiscriminately. The Pentagon, where Russian complaints over Syria and Iran are directed, has not rushed to punish Russia and has officially dissociated itself from Clinton’s accusations. It has no time for political games because it needs Russia’s sustained cooperation in Afghanistan (equipment, cargo, transit, routes and other technical matters).
When you consider the complex multilayered relations between these two countries that were just recently mortal enemies, you should expect to see some clouds. What matters is whether they are set for conflict, or whether tensions are the result of objective structural factors. The United States and Russia are currently not set for confrontation, at least not at the highest level. There is no friendship or sympathy between Putin and Obama, and there is unlikely to be any in the future. But it is more important that they see each other as trustworthy partners. Their latest joint statement indicates that this is possible.