WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will use their meeting Monday, the first since Putin returned to Russia’s top job, to claim leverage in a mutually dependent but volatile relationship.
Obama needs Russia to help, or at least not hurt, U.S. foreign policy aims in the Mideast and Afghanistan. Putin needs the United States as a foil for his argument that Russia doesn’t get its due as a great power.
Obama and Putin are set to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic gathering in Mexico that will otherwise focus largely on the European economic crisis. Greece’s fate as part of the eurozone may be sealed as Obama and other world leaders meet, and the gathering is a natural forum for sideline discussions of the urgent crisis in Syria as well as diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran.
Russia is a linchpin in several U.S. foreign policy goals. Chief among them are the international effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and a smooth shutdown of the Afghanistan war. Brutal attacks on anti-government protesters in Syria and the threat of civil war in the Mideast nation pose the most immediate crisis. In the longer term, Obama wants Russia’s continued cooperation in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Russia’s membership in numerous world bodies and its veto power at the U.N. Security Council give it leverage beyond its economic or military power.
Obama holds far greater power and both leaders know it. But Putin can be a spoiler and irritant to the administration.
Things got off to a rocky start this spring, when Obama pointedly withheld a customary congratulatory phone call to Putin until days after his election. Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the smaller and weightier Group of Eight meeting that Obama hosted last month at Camp David.
“Putin is in a petulant sort of mood,” said Russia scholar Mark N. Katz of George Mason University. “He’s got all these grievances about American foreign policy and he’s looking for us to satisfy him, and I don’t think we’re going to do that. No amount of bonhomie or talking nicely is going to fix that.”
Obama made a special project of Russia in his first term and arguably needs Moscow’s help even more if he wins a second one. He is trying to avoid a distracting public spat with Russia during this election year, as suggested by an overheard remark to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March. Obama told Medvedev he would have more flexibility to answer Russian complaints about a U.S.-built missile defense shield in Europe after the November election.
For all Obama’s talk of resetting the relationship with Russia, it remains a wary standoff. That’s apparently just the way Putin prefers it.
Putin’s campaign included some of the strongest anti-American rhetoric from Moscow in a decade and he openly accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting protests against him. The Obama administration mostly tried to shrug it off, but Putin’s return to the presidency makes it more likely that any help Russia provides in Syria, Iran or other matters will come at a cost.
U.S. strategy has favored flattery that may overstate Russia’s influence, especially on Syria, and efforts to highlight areas where U.S. and Russian goals align.
“The reset with Russia was based on the belief that we could cooperate with them on areas of common interest, understanding that we saw some differences,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday.
Syria is at the top of the list of differences, especially on the question of whether the crisis can be resolved without deposing President Bashar Assad. Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the four-decade Assad family rule. Russia, as Syria’s longtime ally and trading partner, is seen as the best broker for a deal that could give Assad political refuge.
So far, Moscow has said no.
There is no formal meeting on Syria scheduled at the G-20, but U.S. and other diplomats have said they expect Syria to be a main topic in other settings.
The White House tried to soften the blow of Clinton’s accusation days before the G-20 meeting that Russia was equipping the Syrian government with attack helicopters that could bused against civilians. She later acknowledged they were only helicopters already owned by Syria that had been sent back to Russia for repairs, but Russia was already annoyed.
Russia insists that any arms it supplies to Syria are not being used to quell anti-government dissent that began more than a year ago, and has rebuffed efforts to impose an international arms embargo. Russia and Syria have a longstanding military relationship and Syria hosts Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea.
The United States has refused to arm anti-Assad rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight in which Iran and Russia and others arm one side and the U.S. and Sunni Arab states arm the other. Opposition groups estimate 13,000 people have died in violence that the U.S. fears is sliding into civil war.
Carney brushed aside questions about whether the U.S. might yank support for Russia’s membership in World Trade Organization if Russia refuses to help on Syria. He underscored that the U.S. supports that core Russian goal, which will be a centerpiece of the talks.
The Obama-Putin meeting also comes the same day as Moscow hosts an international negotiating session with Iran. Russia has gone along with U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten some penalties against Iran because of questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but has blocked the harshest punishments. Still, the United States needs Russia’s participation to lend legitimacy to the argument that Iran faces broad international condemnation. Iran usually paints the dispute over its nuclear program as a confrontation with the U.S. and its ally Israel.
The Pew Research Center’s newly released global public opinion survey gives Putin job approval ratings Obama can only dream of. About 72 percent of Russians have a favorable opinion of Putin, and a majority put more faith in a strong leader than in a democratic form of government. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said Russia deserves greater respect from other countries.
Despite that footing, tens of thousands of protesters thronged Moscow streets this past week in the first mass protest against Putin since he returned to the presidency in May. His tactics in cracking down on political opponents will make it difficult for Obama to play down longstanding U.S. complaints about human rights abuses that infuriate Russian leaders. The Kremlin ordered the detention and interrogation of at least one activist and searches of others’ homes last week.
Putin’s own return to the presidency was far more certain than Obama’s re-election chances. Despite their differences, Putin probably would prefer a second Obama term to a Mitt Romney presidency, Katz said, not least because the Republican challenger has called Russia the chief strategic enemy of the United States.