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A no-win, no-win for Obama and Putin
August 19, 2013, 9:33 am

Much has been said, debated and postulated about US President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

But in cold practicality, there are no strong arguments for a bilateral Russian-American summit not to be postponed at this point of time.

Absolutely urgent matters such as National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden’s immediate fate and the US Magnitsky list (of Russian officials barred from entry to the US on the suspicion they were responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky) seem to have been dealt with, however flawed and contested these issues might be.

Obama recently canceled a September meet with Putin [AP]

Obama recently canceled a September meet with Putin [AP]

These could hardly have been undone by a Putin-Obama meet amid so much current negativity.

So what the cancelation altered is possibly the styles or ways Russian-American relations are conducted rather than the relations themselves.

These changes of style were absolutely inevitable for both heads of state to save face.


The Snowden trap


The first reason for this, most obviously, was the “Snowden trap”. Both Putin and Obama have unwittingly ended up playing the “chicken game”.

However, one distinct departure from this hawk-dove game was that this time, none wished to compete let alone yield ground.

In fact, both were busy dousing the flames and halting the race rather then challenging the other. Putin led the fire-fighting efforts by emphasising that Snowden could remain in Russia on the condition he not harm “our American friends”.

Cancelling the summit, here, was the most obvious and convenient decision for both sides to convert a “win-lose” paradigm into a “no win-no win” scenario.

I would say the intrigue rather lay in how the “Snowden trap” was constructed by the US after the NSA revelations. Putin was the first to discover the trap; following the forced landing of the Bolivian president’s plane in Vienna the easiest and obvious way for him to escape responsibility or “act” in the Snowden affair was closed.

No doubt Putin would have been much more satisfied if Snowden had escaped to anywhere in Latin America without being arrested en route.

It was quite predictable that in a situation of “loss of face under pressure or political asylum for Snowden” Putin would chose the latter option, leaving Obama with the necessity to demonstrate America’s fury at the inability to reach its declared goal – the whistle-blower’s handover.

Furthermore, one shouldn’t lose sight that last year was marked by a period of polarisation between Washington and Moscow.


International challenges


The failure of cooperation regarding the European anti-missile defence system was followed by the Magnitsky Act in the US and, in response, the Dima Yakovlev Act in Russia, which banned entry of US persons allegedly involved in the violation of human rights (adoption of Russian children).

These actions – and reactions – pretended to institutionalise awareness and lack of trust, if not hostility, between the Russian and Americans elites.

The fact that Obama and Putin cancelled their meeting should be seen as only a logical continuation of the internal policy of both countries.

It is very unlikely that these differences have a chance to grow into principled ones. That’s not only because of mutual interdependence, which remains quite high mostly in security issues now, but also because neither the US nor Russia are currently able to produce and propose a new global strategy for international challenges.

The list begins with the global economic crisis, the ‘Arab spring’ and turmoil in West Asia again.

Both Russian and US approaches are currently limited to being reactive. But “no strategy” debars principal conflict, simply because there is no real reason for it. Most of the recent US-Russia conflicts are just situational and thus can be easily resolved, unlike the historical baggage of the “Cold War”.

The absence of a strategic outlook on how global challenges should be managed, the foremost of these being the economic crisis, was one definite reason for the Russian-American reset to fail.

But this also means that once such an outlook is reached and agreed upon, a new reset is both possible and desirable.


The East rises


Russia was the first stop in Chinese President Xi Jinping's first overseas tour as President [Xinhua]

Russia was the first stop in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first overseas tour as President [Xinhua]

Meanwhile, relations between Russia and China are on the rise, considering that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping said they will continue dialogue during the G-20 Summit in St Petersburg next month.

As there are no major problems in the Russian-Chinese relations left unresolved, a further strengthening of deep bilateral dialogue could only be connected to the global challenges both countries face.

It is clear that the ability (or inability) of global institutions to deal with the current global challenges are having a perverse impact on bilateral ties all over the world.

The less effective these international economic and other institutions are getting, the more efforts countries invest into searching for solutions through bilateral and regional alliances. In this context, Moscow and Beijing are no exception.

There are currently two specific machinations of Russian-Chinese dialogue over global issues: BRICS and G-20.

BRICS is trying to unite the most developed part of non-western civilization economically and politically.

According to Chinese official press, BRICS members (all of them, except Russia, are former colonies) should perceive and present their current economic strength as a sort of “historical revenge”. Till now this ambition remains only a possible potential: the bloc is yet to pursue overtly specific political or economic goals.

As for the G-20 group of nations, it initially was a consultation platform created to deal with the challenge of global economic crisis. So far, it has failed to produce any receipt or strategy, but preserves it potential as long as the crisis itself remains an unresolved problem.

As most BRICS countries are also members of the G-20, the upcoming Summit in St Petersburg could be a good reason for them to bring their coordination (and mutual trust) to a new level: there are obvious chances for BRICS to consolidate the G-20 around their own interests. These matters surely were part of the agenda for the recent negotiations between Putin and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi.

However, real progress here would clearly depend on the ability of BRICS countries to create a joint strategy of dealing with the global economic crisis.

That could mean that the current rise in Russian-Chinese relations could remain a tactical but not a strategic episode, under which the BRICS format would be considered by both parties not as a “union for strategic breakthrough” but as a “bargaining means with third parties”.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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