Foreign policy can sometimes seem to be irrational despite the efforts of academics and policy-makers to make it clear. It is surprising how often an unexpected or unrelated event can energize important aspects of foreign policy. In the case of the United States and Russia, President Barack Obama’s efforts to re-set relations appears to have failed. Their nadir came with the Kremlin’s decision to halt adoptions by Americans of Russian orphans, and the U.S. decision to ban travel here to anyone connected with the death in jail of a Russian human rights lawyer. Russia’s decision to clamp down on non-governmental agencies that receive assistance from abroad, which some regard as an assault on dissent and human rights, has made things worse.
However, the bombings at the Boston Marathon have provided an opening for improved U.S.-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first international leaders to condemn the attack. Putin also telephoned Obama and told him Russia “would be ready to provide assistance,” and numerous Russians laid flowers in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. However, Putin also said that the bombings showed the West’s mistake in supporting Chechnya. He maintained the West should have listened to Moscow a long time ago.
Two days prior to the bombings, Tom Donlon, Obama’s national security advisor, traveled to Moscow and met with Putin and other senior officials. Their topics appeared to be national security issues such as cuts in strategic nuclear weapons and expanded cooperation in addressing missile threats from Iran and North Korea. There are obvious differences between the United States and on Syria, but privately, the Russians worry about what Iran will do next, and they have little time for the North Koreans.
Importantly, it was announced that Putin will meet Obama twice this year. They’ll meet first in mid-June at the Group of 8 meeting in Northern Ireland and then again in Russia in September.
In spite of Russian displeasure with Washington’s decision to ban certain Russians from traveling to the United States, Donlon’s visit appeared to be more positive than negative. The fact that the presidents will meet twice is a signal to U.S. and Russian bureaucrats to get to work; there may be movement in the relationship.
It is clear that both sides can profit from greater cooperation on international terrorism. We know that the Russians warned us about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. While we still don’t know the details of the report or what happened — other than the FBI interviewed him and reportedly asked for additional information, the Russians failed to provide any more information. I suspect the Russians believe that the FBI did not take them seriously, which is the main reason they took the same material to the CIA in hopes of a different response.
The lesson is clear: focus on terrorism without politicizing it. Anyone who commits an act of terror, in the United States, Russia or somewhere else, must be stopped. The world of international intelligence can play a big role by providing non-politicized information.
There is another reason put forward by some observers for Moscow’s willingness to receive Donlon and for its push to improve cooperation on fighting terrorism. That is a feeling that Obama is weak — that he can be pushed around. They are aware of his threats to the Iranians, for example, and his failure to follow up with actions. As regards Syria, the president spoke of a red line concerning use of chemical weapons and said if the Syrians crossed it, he would respond. Based on reports from Washington and Israel, Assad appears to have used chemical weapons. Unfortunately, Obama appeared to be playing word games that allow for the suggestion that the red line has not really been crossed.
One American observer said, “Some experts have long concluded that Obama is presiding over the United States’ withdrawal from global leadership.” Others believe Obama is so concerned with international security that the U.S. has put its concern with human rights in Russia on the back burner. In any case, if adversaries see weakness, they will pounce on it. That is one reason it is so dangerous to make threats and not follow up on them.
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.