Chill sets in between U.S., Russia

Obama, Putin at odds over multitude of issues

By Dale R. Herspring

President Barack Obama has spoken when it comes to US-Russian relations. He made it clear that in light of the Edward Snowden case, he will not meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month.

Moscow gave Snowden, who stole thousands of government documents, most of them classified, one year’s asylum.  He can live and work for a year without any restrictions.

Both countries have been guilty of angering the other by giving sanction to certain individuals. The United States gave refuge to several comrades of one a bloodthirsty Chechen leaders, while Russia has periodically given asylum to U.S. dissidents. The Snowden case, however, is different. To the U.S. government, Snowden fits into another category: His crime involves stealing government secrets and providing classified information to the enemy. 

So what does this mean for U.S.-Russian relations? First, the Russians don’t consider Snowden a political dissident.  Rather, the Russians, and particularly Putin, look upon him as a genuine spy — someone who gives the other side information that that gives it an advantage.

Putin knew that Washington expected him to return Snowden.Putin, however, neither respects Obama nor cares he thinks.  It is clear that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with the Russians has long since failed.  On the positive side, Obama has said the United States will not boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Russia next year.

Though I am often critical of Obama, I cheer his comment on the Olympics. Boycotting the Sochi Olympics would so severely damage U.S.-Russian relations that it would be many months before we would could together in a constructive fashion.

The present standoff indicates that our bilateral relations are moving toward a Cold War-like atmosphere. We are on a volatile situation that could erupt at any minute — especially in the Middle East. Equally important, we desperately need Russia’s help to deal with many issues. Russia has been a difficult partner, especially on issues like Syria, although we bear some of the blame for that. 

Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the late, unlamented Soviet Russia, used to ask the question, “What is to be done?” It is appropriate to ask that now.  Is there anything we can do to put the relationship back together?  Our biggest problem is not that Putin dislikes Obama. The issue is one of respect. Putin sees Obama as a weak leader who repeatedly threatens consequences he subsequently ignores and who is beset with numerous domestic problems - what he calls “phony scandals.” 

A country that has to close down a score of embassies and consulates does not have a strong hand. Either the White House is fighting to avoid another Benghazi — one of the “phony scandals,” or its intelligence system needs some serious work.  Either way, the United States is not a country to be taken seriously.

Does that mean we should give up hope? I learned as a diplomat that there never is a time to give up hope, even when the situation appears hopeless.  Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Russia and the U.S. must find progress on critical issues despite “collisions and moments of disagreement.” He and the Russian foreign minister and our two countries’ defense ministers recently met in Washington. Their focus was on arms control and Syria.  Not surprisingly, they failed to reach agreement. But the fact that Moscow sent its foreign minister to Washington means that the Kremlin does not want a break in relations; it wants to keep talking.  As that master of the English language, Winston Churchill, once put it, “It’s better to jaw, jaw, jaw, than to fight, fight, fight.” He was right.  Obama said on Aug. 9 that, it was easier for him to deal with former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who genuinely seemed to want improvement in our bilateral relations.  How-ever, Obama now has to confront Putin. Putin is a street fighter.  Unfortunately, Obama appears to be anything but.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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