Russian obstructionism and the increasingly tense relationship between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin may finally put an end to talk of friendship and resets.
Russia is actively sowing confusion over Syria. Russian leaders have called U.S. claims that the regime of Bashar Assad used chemical weapons “nonsense” and claimed that a chemical weapons attack in March was carried out by Syrian rebels. They now propose that Syria — which is supposedly being attacked with chemical weapons by rebels — turn over its chemical weapons to international supervision and subsequently destroy them. The Assad regime, which is trying to buy time for itself, “welcomed the Russian initiative.”
This is hardly the first time Russia has sought to sabotage U.S. interests with the help of diplomacy.
When Obama initiated the “reset” policy in U.S.-Russian relations, he suggested that the burden of responsibility for past tensions lay with the United States, implicitly blaming President George W. Bush for all that had gone wrong.
At the 2009 Moscow summit, Obama described Putin’s “extraordinary work” on behalf of the Russian people. Obama’s comments came despite reports from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that Russia was a “mafia state,” and Putin had amassed a personal fortune of almost $40 billion.
Obama has been repeating a mistake made by almost every U.S. president: assuming they can charm their Russian counterparts into cooperating with the U.S. and respecting democratic practices. That mistakenly assumes Russian leaders share the traits of American politicians.
Although Obama sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Bush behaved in much the same way. During one meeting with Putin, Bush remarked that after looking into the Russian leader’s eyes, he was “able to get a sense of his soul.”
Perhaps the classic example of American naivete regarding Russia is Jimmy Carter, who threw his arms around Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the 1979 Vienna summit after Brezhnev whispered to him, “God will not forgive us if we fail.” When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan six months later, Brezhnev told Carter over the hot line that they had entered Afghanistan to defend the country against a foreign invasion. Carter later said that he learned more about the nature of the Soviets’ ultimate intentions during that conversation than he had in his entire life.
U.S.-Russian relations don’t depend on the charm of a U.S. president, but rather on his ability to deal with his Russian counterpart realistically. Power and property in present-day Russia are concentrated in the hands of oligarchs with personal ties to Putin. This group, according to some estimates, controls 15 percent of the nation’s wealth. They ensure loyalty through corruption and enjoy the spoils of their illegitimate gains in the West, which is also their destination of choice should the situation in Russia become untenable.
Putin and his associates were reminded of the fragility of this system in December 2011, when mass protests broke out in Moscow over the falsification of the parliamentary elections. Since then, Putin has intensified anti-Western propaganda as controls over civil society have tightened. This isn’t because of any action by the U.S., but because the image of an external threat is the best way to distract ordinary Russians from the abuses of their own government.
When Putin announced that he was ready to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, he said Snowden would have to stop releasing information and “hurting our American partners.” Yet in the weeks since Snowden was granted asylum in Russia, the leaks have continued.
We can expect further attempts by Russia to frustrate U.S. policy over Syria. By defending Syria, Russia seeks to position itself as the champion of disadvantaged people against worldwide U.S. aggression, in this way becoming an equal of the U.S. This image resonates with the Russian people and is the perfect way to distract them from the pillaging of the Putin regime.
A real reset in U.S.-Russian relations would take into account Russian interference and indifference to U.S. security. Some bilateral agreements might be off the table — at least temporarily. But all experience with Russia shows that the U.S. gains most in the long run when it treats Russia as it is rather than the country it would like it to be.
David Satter is an adviser in Moscow to Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.”