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 leaders trying not to say nor do anything that could set off an avalanche made it. In short, they followed the first rule of medicine, “Do no harm”. Putin hasn’t met with a US 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 2008 Beijing Olympics, although not about sports. He demanded that Bush stop Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who had launched a war against South Ossetia that day. Bush didn’t 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 US-Russian relations. It was a balanced and positive document, which 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 US policy, veered dramatically away from the partners’ constructive plans. In other words, Moscow decided that Washington had deceived it. 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 the Ukraine into the NATO orbit and deploying missile defence 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-US relations under Putin and Bush culminated in a fatal loss of Russian trust in the USA, which has continued to affect bilateral relations to this day. Putin’s 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 defence plans for Poland and Czechia, and he has done so. Moscow’s shown that it’s always willing to reciprocate. Then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated that Russia would look into approving sanctions against Iran the very next day after Obama buried Bush’s missile defence initiative in Eastern Europe. However, the US-Russian relationship is now strained and the fruits of the reset policy have spoilt. 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. US senators accused Rosoboronexport of aiding the Iranian missile programme.
The US Congress will likely approve legislation to normalise 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 US criticism of Russia over the new Assembly Law and the police searches of the homes of several opposition leaders, the missile defence dead-end and the now customary diplomatic scandals involving Ambassador Michael McFaul, the general picture of US-Russian relations looks gloomy. However, in fact, it’s 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”. Nevertheless, differences over Syria and Iran are important, as the situation in these countries is approaching a showdown. Although US-Russian relations are far from friendly, they aren’t unusually hostile either.
The important thing is what the US administration does to minimise damage from its political sorties. The State Department and the White House have publicly supported the Republican advocates of the Magnitsky Act, whilst 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, hasn’t rushed to punish Russia and has officially dissociated itself from Clinton’s accusations. It hasn’t the 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 USA and Russia are currently not set for confrontation, at least not at the highest level. There’s no friendship or sympathy between Putin and Obama, and there’s unlikely to be any in the future. However, it’s more important that they see each other as trustworthy partners. Their latest joint statement indicates that this is possible.
21 June 2012