Putin outmaneuvers, out-toughs Obama

By Dale R. Herspring

Well, he did it. Russian President Vladimir Putin granted temporary (one year) asylum to Edward Snowden despite knowing it would outrage the United States. Putin not only disdains President Barack Obama, he doesn’t worry about the consequences of his action.  Obama will try to show his unhappiness with Russia with symbolic actions, but Putin doesn’t believe Obama will do anything that will seriously undercut U.S.-Russian ties.

Given Obama’s history with of international issues, Putin may be right. .

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is to meet with the Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu. Their focus will be on missile defense. They were to set the stage for the Obama-Putin meeting after the Group of 20 meetings in St. Petersburg in early September. Not surprisingly, Obama last week said he wouldn’t meet with Putin next month, but I doubt he will do much more.  He is too busy campaigning for the 2014 elections. Given the number of what he calls “phony scandals” in Washington and the messy rollout of Obamacare, it would not be surprising if he focuses on domestic politics.

The Russians are playing down the importance of the Kremlin’s decision to grant him asylum. “It was a minor action.  No one wants to do anything to damage our relations,” is how one Russian official put it.

Unfortunately, we need Russia. In Syria, for example, Putin backs Bashar Assad to the hilt. That is partly to get revenge for the way the United States excluded Russia from the Libyan conflict and partly because Syria is Russia’s only foothold in the Middle East.  Equally important is Putin’s conviction that Obama will do little to help the rebels who appear to be on the losing side in Syria’s civil war. 

We and the Russians “agreed” to begin to work on a peaceful end to the conflict. We were organizing a conference that would bring together the two sides. One of the problems was on our side. Who are the rebels?  Because we were so late getting involved, al-Qaeda was able to become established. Working with the Russians would not be a panacea, but it would be a line of communication that could prove very important.

Another focal point is Iran. The Russians have good ties with Tehran and have asked Iran to let IAEA inspectors see whatever they want, and to stop enriching uranium. Iran said no. At one time, Russia offered to provide Iran enriched uranium to ensure that Iran did not have enough of the right kind of enriched uranium to build a bomb. Again, Iran said no.

The Russians have also refused to fulfill a contract to provide Iran with S-300 air defense missiles. Putin is reportedly preparing to go to Iran, and it would be in our interest to get a sense of Iranian intentions from him.

Finally, there is Afghanistan.  We are deeply dependent on the Russians.  Because of the instability we face in shipping material through Pakistan, we tranship tons of material through Russia.  We are paying well to use the route,  which is secure and through which supplies get through. The Russians could hurt us if they wanted to by cutting off our supply route.

All of that is secondary when one considers how volatile the Middle East is. Egypt is in chaos, Jordan is seeing Islamic radicals on the rise, Syria is in flames and Lebanon is unstable.  All the while, Iran is working to supply radicals everywhere with weapons to increase the disorder.

The Gulf states, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, worry that Iran will destabilize the Gulf Region. Further complicating the situation, Israel has made clear to Obama that it will do something about Iran’s nuclear program. 

If a Middle Eastern conflict spreads to other countries, or if Iran decides to retaliate against Israel, we would be in the middle of a major conflict, something for which we are not prepared. The U.S. military is being starved of funds, and our attention is on the Far East. Like it or not, we need close cooperation with the Russians.

Putin is tough, and it’s an image he likes to project. However, he expects his opposite number in the United States to be equally strong, and he doesn’t regard Obama as a tough person. Obama makes concessions like unilaterally removing missiles from Poland and radar from the Czech Republic. He got nothing from Putin in return. 

If Obama really wants Putin’s attention, he could approve the Keystone pipeline — Moscow’s only export of significance is oil — or put the missiles and radar back in Poland and the Czech Republic. These are just a few of the things Obama could do, but probably won’t.

Our community organizer president does not understand foreign policy.  Too bad.

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

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