Guest Editorial

Obama’s voice on Russia


The pomp and circumstance of summits between world leaders usually signal the end of a process. Before the toasts and signing ceremony, negotiators often have spent months or years hammering out agreements.

But there aren’t any agreements worth celebrating right now with Russia. The relationship is clouded by disputes and conflict. So it makes sense that President Obama has decided against a summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin, who returned to office in May for a third term, has been carrying out a campaign to crush opposition at home. One dimension of that is an ugly streak of anti-Americanism.

He pushed through parliament a ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans in a fit of pique over a U.S. law that curtailed visas for Russians identified as human rights abusers. Mr. Putin also snubbed the United States by offering temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor sought for leaking secret documents.

Mr. Putin’s policies seem driven most of all by a desire to show he is standing tall. His approach has thrown the relationship with Washington into a downward spiral.

Mr. Obama had hoped for better. His goal of a reset with Russia enjoyed a brief flowering under former president Dmitry Medvedev, leading to a new strategic arms treaty and cooperation in moving U.S. war materiel out of Afghanistan.

But the reset looks to be dead. When Mr. Putin unleashed his assault on human rights and democracy, the administration’s reaction was timid, based on wishful thinking that it could do business with Russia despite the crackdown.

Given the retreat on rights and democracy, Mr. Obama is correct not to want to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Putin right now. The relationship is strained by other disputes, including differences over Syria, missile defense, and Mr. Snowden’s fate.

Skipping the summit is a tactic. A long-term strategy with Russia has to include engagement, including at the highest level, no matter how prickly and unpleasant that may be. But the engagement must be faithful to the highest American values.

The bloggers and activists punished arbitrarily by Mr. Putin, the young women from the persecuted rock band Pussy Riot, the orphans whose hopes were dashed, the young Russians in urban coffeehouses who have taken to the streets in protest — all would benefit from hearing loud and clear not only that the U.S. President is skipping a summit, but also that he stands with them in believing that the highest aspirations of freedom and human dignity do not belong to one country or bloc of countries, but are universal and apply to all.