Obama and Putin turn frosty in warm Mexico
President Barack Obama’s relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin turned frostier at their first summit since Putin’s return as President, signaling the start of longer term tensions between the two military giants. It also places hurdles for a British-French initiative launched in May to work more closely with Moscow to win its cooperation in pressuring Syria’s Bashar al Assad to end his bloody crackdown.
Obama’s reset of relations with Russia seems to have petered out at the G-20 summit that ended today in Mexico. It was his last major summit appearance before the November elections. Although a new cold war is unlikely, tensions are significant enough to frustrate Washington and its NATO allies on issues pushed energetically by the Obama administration, including Syria, Iran and an anti-missile system for Europe.
In a two hour meeting with Obama, Putin took an assertive tone and rejected his lectures about Russia’s support for Assad’s rogue regime and disregard for human rights and political protests in Moscow. Other Obama issues also ran aground and should hurt his electoral chances since he is running on the US economy and his ability to steer other countries in favor of American security and trade interests.
The main issue relevant to US jobs and prosperity was getting some kind of agreement on European bailout among the 20 countries, which account for over 85 percent of world economic output. Obama spent nearly an hour with Germany’s Angel Merkel and held a meeting with other Europeans but they did not heed his warnings that Europe’s economic mismanagement is seriously damaging economic recovery and employment in the US and around the world. They may act in coming weeks but outcomes remain unpredictable.
European troubles are deeply rooted and Obama might have saved face had he avoided brokering solutions. But he took that risk just four months from the elections and has little to show for it so far.
However, Putin caused the greater discomfiture since Obama came away with little of substance on most fronts. Putin flatly rejected American charges that Russia is undermining international efforts to get Assad to stop massacring Syrians and step down from power. Putin still thinks that Obama is using the Syrian catastrophe as a backdoor to oust Russia from the Middle East by pressuring Moscow to abandon its only ally in the region.
Russia’s diplomatic position remains unchanged. Moscow does not really care if Assad falls but it will not allow a pro-US or pro-Saudi regime from grabbing power. It seems Putin would rather see prolonged civil strife than let Syria fall into pro-Western hands.
The meeting with Obama seems to have convinced Putin that Russia’s national and security interests in the region will not get a serious hearing in Washington. That is undesirable because Russia is the only country that has Assad’s ear at this time. Iran has influence but Assad is wary of being identified too closely with it.
It remains possible that Putin may try to work through Britain and France to put some impetus into a United Nations peace plan led by former Secretary General Kofi Annan. But that plan is crumbling because UN peace monitors suspended their work in Syria late last week. They are unarmed and fear for their own safety since Assad and his opponents are scaling up violence instead of reducing it as the plan requires. A recent Washington announcement that it will help Assad’s opponents with intelligence and logistics has increased Putin’s wariness because the aid will allow Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to ferry more weapons to the rebels.
On Iran, Putin has refused to side with Washington’s call for more severe sanctions to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Putin opposes the weapons but does not want erosion in the power of Iran’s mullahs, to prevent an increase in US and Western influence in Teheran.
Putin also strongly opposes Obama’s missile shield because some of its components will be located in Poland and other countries near Russia’s borders. Russian military leaders have already threatened to bring their own missiles closer to those countries.
Almost all the outcomes have undercut Obama. His next chance to rebuild his hand will only come after November, if he is reelected.