Getting past the chill in US-Russia relations

Once US President Barack Obama had announced that the planned September one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin had been removed from his itinerary, the announcement was bound to become the subject of immediate and intense interest among foreign policy analysts, keen to contemplate the implications of the announcement for longer-term relations between Washington and Moscow.

The cancellation of the summit was predictable. It was always likely that Vladimir Putin would hold on to what he regarded as a considerable propaganda coup arising out of the unlikely development of an American national security functionary tendering  fear of official persecution in the US as a basis for seeking asylum in Moscow. During the Cold War era it used to be the other way around ‒ mostly.  For its part, Washington had made no secret of its intention to make an issue out of the affair if it did not get Snowden back. Russia made its call and an already embarrassed US responded. The Obama administration had expended far too much political and diplomatic currency trying to retrieve Snowden from Moscow to take the asylum decision lying down. Saving face is a legitimate  form of diplomatic behaviour.  Neither the Americans nor the Russians are unfamiliar with the option.

This is not, however, the era of the Cold War. While, predictably, the calling off of the planned Obama-Putin meeting has generated an element of hype in both the international media community and in global foreign policy circles, the hype will pass. The truth is that the whole business of calling off the summit had been a carefully choreographed affair, a measured decision on Washington’s part, designed to signal its displeasure over Moscow’s handling of the Snowden affair without creating a disproportionately serious rupture in bilateral relations with Russia.

President Obama himself has made clear his objection to pushing the envelope any further, by, for example, embracing  a boycott of next year’s  Winter Olympics in Russia over a new law in that country forbidding what has been termed “homosexual propaganda.” That would have taken the two countries back to the Cold War era when the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

More than that, it is not without significance that the timing of the cancellation of the summit came just days before John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the US Foreign and Defence Secretaries, respectively, were due to meet with their Russian opposite  numbers  ‒ “the two Sergeis” – Lavrov and Shoigu, in Washington. Those meetings apparently, ensued in an atmosphere of sufficient cordiality to take some of the edge away from the announcement about the cancellation of the September meeting between the two Presidents. That too was deliberate. That too is permissible in the Kafkaesque world of international diplomacy.

What the current dip in the temperature of relations between the two powers has done is to focus even more global attention on their continuing preeminent roles in international relations at a time when other states – China is by far the best example – are challenging the Cold War matrix that defines a superpower. What defines a superpower in the post Cold-War era may be open to question, but what can be said is that Washington and Moscow still retain their places as the pre-eminent arbiters in key global issues. The Snowden issue apart, the US and Russia still differ on issues that include the war in Syria, missile defence, nuclear disarmament and human rights. None of these will be solved without US-Russia cooperation.

The Edward Snowden affair may be one of those episodes of one-upmanship between two Presidents whose personal relationship (despite Obama’s insistence to the contrary) have not been particularly good at the best of times. The fact of the matter is, however, that for Washington, Russia’s granting of asylum to Snowden amounts to a case of acute embarrassment rather than irreparable damage for the Obama administration. Interestingly the Russian Defence Minister reportedly came away from his first meeting with his American counterpart announcing that the two men will be holding regular video conferences. That is not a customary form of behaviour when the US and Russia are seriously at odds.

The glitch in US-Russian relations in the wake of the Snowden development should be seen against the backdrop of the broader agenda of current global issues. The goal on both sides during the post-Cold War era has been to make progress on those issues where their interests coincide while managing those which diverge. Accordingly, and on the whole, relations have improved over the past five years or so.

Beyond seeking to manage their bilateral relations, Moscow and Washington have both been mindful of the importance of protecting their role as the world’s principal policemen and the superpower status that still attends that role. Nowhere is that reality currently more evident than in Syria, where the worsening  conflict and its likely implications for the stability of the Middle East has, over the months, become a matter of growing importance on the international agendas of both Washington and Moscow. Since neither country appears inclined to give up their status inherited from the Cold War era, they need to remind themselves that these days, perhaps to no lesser extent than during the period of intense rivalry that characterized the Cold War, they need to be mindful of the potential implications of the manner in which they manage their bilateral relations.

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