The article is not about Syria. But still it is very important that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry stressed on August 23 the importance of conducting an objective investigation into reports on possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. A statement came after Mr. Lavrov made phone calls with Kerry highlighting the need to provide a safe entry for the UN investigators to the area where the possible chemical attack took place (then the US said it needed no inspectors, the evidence was there and it was actually willing to repeat what it did in 2003 in Iraq, but that is another story). The Russian government called upon Syria to cooperate with the UN experts. It goes to show that Russia and the US are not in a deadlock after President Obama’s decision to skip the Moscow summit, we have fish to fry together and we realize that. The cooperation hits great bumps, but it’s not dead. At least not today. It’s yet to be seen how the events in Syria will unfold. A senior State Department official said on August 26 the meeting between Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts was postponed because of the ongoing U.S. review about alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. The meeting at the Hague was about setting up an international conference to find a political resolution to the Syrian crisis. It’s hard to see how the meeting could stand in the way of any, whatsoever, reviewing process, and it’s an ominous sign testifying to the fact the US is moving in wrong direction. But there is also a silver lining here – the very same day (August 26) White House spokesman Jay Carney said US President Barack Obama will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in some fashion during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Anyway, whatever it is it’s clear that a RF-US summit could have been of paramount importance now when there is an urgent need to address the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, but President Obama has decided otherwise.
Russian officials said they were unhappy with the US President’s decision. «We are dissatisfied with the U.S. administration decision to cancel Obama’s planned visit to Moscow early in September», Yuri Ushakov, an aide to Russian President told reporters commenting the announcement. He said the decision was connected to the Snowden case, «which was not created by us at all», stressing the fact that «For many years, Americans have avoided striking an extradition agreement while invariably responding with a denial to our request to extradite persons who committed crimes on Russian territory, referring to the lack of such an agreement».
The gist of problem; cursory look
There were difficulties in the relations since long before the Edward Snowden incident. The armed conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008, missile defense, Syria, strategic arms control, Iran, human rights in Russia, the Magnitsky Act and the adoption of Russian children by U.S. couples, the grievances are numerous and, perhaps, this is the right time to take stock of where we are, why we are here and what options we face. There is a long list of issues to address and it’s important to choose the ones making up the structural framework, a kind of launching pad for the US-Russian relations to develop. But addressing the issues of importance has nothing to do with skipping summits especially at the times the US international standing has been so greatly undermined by Snowden’s revelations.
Launching the reset policy, the US administration singled out three pivotal pillars to stand on: nuclear arms reduction, Afghanistan and Iran. There is a very tangible, but still the only unambiguous, achievement – the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). The missile defense in Europe has become an insurmountable obstacle on the way of any further progress on arms control. It is also a threat in the Pacific and not to Russia only. If the current global missile defense plans are implemented, the US will be capable of countering a retaliatory strike from China, which is believed to operate around 80 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Japan has also acquired a theater missile defense system, so the issue is not limited by Europe or Russia anymore. Anyway, the probability of another treaty’s failure to pass the Senate is increased by the fact that most senators supported the START in exchange for the White House’s promise to modernize the US strategic nuclear arsenal. Tactical nukes are out of agenda because of US intransigence on pulling the 200 munitions out of Europe as a precondition for starting debates.
The cooperation on Iran (as well as other hot spots) is hampered as a result of NATO’s outright cheating on the UN Security Council resolution on Libya in 2011 in a gross violation of international law. You sow the seeds – you reap the results. There is a slim chance to bridge the fundamental differences on Syria. With the ISAF withdrawal date drawing near, the Afghanistan issue pales in significance, no arrangement is in sight anyway. Russia and allies are taking steps to tackle the issue on their own and there are many other actors involved, China and India for instance, while the US clout is doomed to diminish.
Besides, the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union, and the Common Economic Space – the Russia’s regional initiatives are vigorously opposed by the US since 2012. The human rights issue is a strong irritant. Actually the pause in relations could provide a much-needed opportunity to define priorities in the relationship, the areas where the bilateral interests still coincide: nonproliferation and fight against terrorism, support of the possible residual US military presence in Afghanistan and coordination of efforts to thwart the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. The relations may even get worse before they get better. But we still have the 2+2 talks as an instrument to keep it up. The meeting between the two countries’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense on August 9 in Washington was constructive and quiet. According to Lavrov, Kerry agreed that the fate of the ex-CIA analyst and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, «should not overshadow other issues being negotiated, or undermine the common interests of both countries». Similarly, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu asserted that he did not feel «any changes in the approaches to military cooperation» between the two countries because of the «Snowden case». The parties emphasized that the summit cancellation should not be perceived a total breakdown of dialogue. The continuation of contacts should shape a concept of constructive Russia-U.S. relationship based on overlapping or intertwined interests. As of now, the priorities defined by the «reset» have proven to be limited both in time and substance.
The decision to skip the summit does not target the bilateral relationship only but rather the global issues affecting many actors: non-proliferation, regional conflicts, terror threats and extremism to name a few.
It happens at the time the world appears to have no idea where it is heading, the hopes for stable and prosperous XXI century have certainly been dashed, the centers of power are shifting against the background of natural resources deficits, migration, climate change, the general crisis of the traditional development patterns, you name it. No predictions possible, we face hard times and uncertain future. You never know what the internationalization of Syrian crisis or the situation in Egypt may lead to on global scale.
It all could be managed in case the efforts are joined. Everyone is affected, there is no exclusion from the rule. The US and Russia have great responsibility, but it’s a global, not bilateral responsibility. No way non-proliferation, exploration of space and ecology can be tackled without Russia and the US finding a common language. The Middle East, Afghanistan and the Pacific are the areas of vital interests for the both countries.
The decision to skip the summit doesn’t make the issues mentioned above less important. We may disagree and we do. The difference in views and approaches or the lack of chemistry in the relations between the leaders do not justify saying no to dialogue at the top level. We still can start a new page defining the issues that unite us or stand a chance of being agreed on the basis of compromise. There may be a pause, but dragging it out is a wrong policy at the wrong time.
The factor of internal pressure
U.S. foreign policy is not always shaped by the White House only. The balance of power in the Congress and the overall balance of political power are important. Cold War influence is still strong in the minds of the generation making up America’s national security and foreign policy elite circles occupying top positions in Congress and heading key editorial boards. The pressure the President comes under is on the rise. For instance, it is added by the almost certain initial frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, who has clearly distanced herself from the reset. While advocating continuing engagement with Russia, Clinton has emphasized the necessity of «very clear eyes about where we draw our lines», the ones to be drawn thick and often.
The Obama administration has decided that since the process becomes a bumpy road, it’s time to test the waters of cooling it down. Especially in view that several prominent US politicians openly call for a shift towards much tougher policy. The resentment towards Russia is strong in Congress. US Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have applauded the cancellation of the summit. Right after the statements they went on to expand on the issue and offered to accelerate missile defense construction in Europe and support Georgia’s entry into NATO. Senator John McCain and David Kramer of Freedom House called on Obama to boycott the G20 summit and the Sochi Winter Olympic games and the expansion of the Magnitsky list adding top Russian officials to it. With midterm elections next year various candidates are inevitably seeking out cards to play, including the policy on Russia. Obama may find the time wrong for displaying «weakness» for the benefit of political opponents.
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Actually Russia has not gotten much from the US recently, it’s certainly not on the losing side. The days it was looking for IMF loans are a thing of the distant past. Time will pass and there will be voices raised saying that now Snowden is forgotten, but the US missed a chance to talk on burning issues (Syria and chemical weapons use is one of the many) face to face or, for instance, tackle the issue of tactical nuclear weapons which is not on the agenda as it should be because it has not been discussed.
The revelations of Snowden is a blow to US image of global human rights defender as well as it undermines the scare campaign pushing beyond proportions the cyber threat allegedly coming from China, Russia and other states. President Obama mishandled the whistleblower’s case, allowing it to assume an inflated level of importance. For decades, Washington and Moscow have managed such issues so as they would not undermine the broader relationship. The U.S. would have never handed over a Russian defector if the tables were turned.
This policy obscures the extent of US own problems and shifts attention from what should be done to overcome them, like, for instance, human rights abuses revealed by Manning and Snowden or consistent Middle East policy. The US lashes out at Russia against the background of frustration over general ineptitude of U.S. foreign policy and homegrown problems. The country rather needs to put its own house in order than blame others for its own failures. Mr. Obama would be better off rolling up his sleeves and working jointly with the partners like Russia, no matter the divisions, than skipping summits for short-tern home policy gains and missing the opportunities to go down in history as a leader who achieved something tangible in the field of foreign policy except the Nobel prize, already to large extent forgotten not being backed up by real deeds or, at least, efforts applied. The cancellation of summit is rather a failure, not a feather in the President Obama’s hat.