Reset the Reset: Can Russia’s Putin Make Deals With Obama II?

Posted November 12th, 2012 at 8:42 pm (UTC+0)

Chilly body language at their last meeting. Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Barrack Obama had a brief meeting in Mexico last June, on the edges of the G20 meeting. Photo: AP

The reset jet no longer flies to Moscow.

In March of 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton, then a brand new secretary of state, jointly pushed a “reset” button, signaling an end to the acrimony of the George W. Bush years. In that same month, United Airlines inaugurated direct jet service between Washington and Moscow.

A few weeks ago, United quietly suspended the Washington-Moscow flight.

International air passenger traffic out of Moscow is up 19 percent this year. But traffic to Washington is soft.

President Putin may drum up a little business with his invitation last week to President Obama to visit Moscow in 2013.

Rare birds in Moscow. United quietly stopped flying from Washington to Moscow a few weeks ago.

But to use 1980s Cold War vocabulary familiar to Russia’s rulers, let’s see how far the Kremlin’s détente lasts with the second Obama Administration.

This week, the U.S. Congress is set to debate the Magnitsky Act. Tied to a bill granting permanent normal trade relations to Russia, this legislation allows Washington to impose banking and visa restrictions on foreign officials seen as guilty of human rights abuses.

Russia sees this bill as being aimed at Russians, and has already announced that it will take retaliatory measures. So the Russian-American détente may last — until Christmas.

On the Kremlin side, President Putin needs an enemy to rally his blue collar, small city, less educated supporters. The United States is a convenient “enemy” — because, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, the U.S. ‘threat’ is manageable.

Unlike a certain Asian country with 10 times Russia’s population, the United States does not share a long land border with Russia. The U.S.-Russia border is water, ice, and lightly populated by Eskimos.

One generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, trade between Russia and the U.S. is so anemic that the Kremlin feels it can afford to give Washington a few verbal kicks. On the trade side, 40 percent of Russia’s imports come from Europe, 16 percent from China, and only 4.5 percent from faraway USA.

A close friend in a high place: James Brooke stands with life size photo of the winner on election night 2012 at U.S. Embassy reception, Spaso House, Moscow. VOA Photo: Kristen Blyth

For the Cold War generation, now ruling Russia, the U.S. is easy to see as a threat, or, at least, as a rival.

Fifty years ago, Nikita Khrushchev did not pound his shoe on a desk, and exhort his Soviet countrymen – “We must catch up with…the French.”

Since then, the reality on the ground has changed. But nearly half a century of Cold War rivalry has a psychological momentum that continues into the 21st century in the brains of many Russians.

But, it is an unrequited enmity. On the American side, Americans are obsessed – not with Russia – but with the rise of China, and how to react to it.

I once interviewed Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian sociologist who was launching his ultimately successful candidacy for the presidency of Brazil. Looking back at Brazil’s “lost decade” of the 1990s – hyperinflation and low growth – he said the biggest threat to Brazil was “irrelevancia.”

Russia, with its massive nuclear arsenal, will never be irrelevant on the international stage.

But to many Americans, Russia too often gets attention for the wrong reason – for playing the spoiler, for kicking Washington in the shins.

On Syria, the world looked last July to the Kremlin as the only outside power that could broker a deal to end the civil war and to ease Bashar al-Assad into a golden exile. But instead of playing a constructive role, the Kremlin, as the Brazilians would say, stepped on the ball.

More constructive is the Kremlin’s recent acceptance – and advocacy – of the idea that the United States and Iran talk directly about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Creative thinking goes like this: if Nixon could go to China, maybe Obama, in his second term, can go to Tehran.

But, in general, official Washington remains wary of Putin’s Russia. While most of the anti-American propaganda here is for domestic consumption, Russian officials seem to forget that what is said here eventually makes it back to Washington.

If Russia’s state-controlled media harasses and vilifies U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the Kremlin should not forget that he worked for three years inside the Obama White House, was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate, and maintains a direct line to the man who will be President of the United States through 2016. Guess who will walk with President Obama into the room for a meeting with President Putin?

While I spent the U.S. election period in Moscow, my friend and fellow columnizer, Konstantin von Eggert, spent the election time in Washington. In his latest Due West column, this Russian columnist for Ria Novosti writes of American attitudes:
“’Let the Russians do their own thing as long as they do not become too much of a nuisance,’ seems to be the prevailing view in the White House. Once adopted, it is hard to change. As long as the Kremlin makes sure it does not do anything that is spectacularly offensive to America’s sensitivities, this policy is bound to last.’’

President Putin’s invitation to President Obama is a positive step forward.

But Obama is just as pragmatic a politician as is Putin.

In his second term, Obama may have more flexibility, but he wants concrete results. The essence of a transactional relationship is to do deals. Obama’s job is not to lead group therapy for Russian officials bitter over perceived American slights that took place when he was in law school.

If Obama sees that Moscow’s polemics and posturing are going to bog down the Russian-American deal making, he will redirect his time and attention elsewhere.

The American voters have reset the Obama presidential clock for four more years.

Now let’s see if Moscow and Washington can reset the reset.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

4 responses to “Reset the Reset: Can Russia’s Putin Make Deals With Obama II?”

  1. Steven Obee says:

    Only Nixon could go to China BECAUSE HE WAS REPUBLICAN!

  2. Gennady says:

    1. There are very profound thoughts in the article.
    Really, can Moscow and Washington reset the reset under Obama II and Putin III? Putin III is desperately willing “to tango” with the leader of military power №1 to boost his plummeted rating.
    It was the greatest moment in Putin I’s agenda when he announced that humiliated by 1998 default Russia was back in the front line of the world politics.
    It was the international politics that had made Russians admire Putin I.
    All Russia had been thrilled by the news with no opposition to Putin I: survived CPSU functionaries were accustomed to be excited by any ruler, blue collar, small city, less educated people were remained in the Cold War rhetoric, creative class expected great changes in the worn-out ideology.
    2. But ailing Mr Putin III can’t deliver anything constructive in the disarmament negotiations without jeopardizing Russian security.
    It’s very unlikely that there’ll be any breakthrough in USA-Russia relations under Putin III. After 12 years in power he failed to materialize all technological and know-how advantages and projects in military sphere that had been Russia’s bequest after the demise of the USSR.
    Although Putin’s Russia still cherishes itself about those nukes it has got short of contemporary means of delivery with Russian science and technology in deep crisis.
    3. What has become with the social support base of ailing Mr Putin III?
    After 12 years of Putin II-Putin III eras it has dramatically shrunk to a few percents of superrich, the United Party bureaucrats and blue collar, small city, less educated people from the Ural Mountains.
    With whom is Mr Putin III going to catch up the fast developing world?
    All nowadays Russia’s “politics” depends on fragile base of one ailing man whims. The CPSU functionaries in the United Russia party have been presiding over billions of petrol-gas money (often misspent – the scandal with the former Defense Minister Serdyukov), controlling any financial transaction and worthy business in Russia.
    The rubber-stamping Duma has passed laws contravening the Russian Constitution. Nowadays Putin III doesn’t enjoy overwhelming support he has used to with his third term marred in rigged election, excessive crackdown on opposition, kidnapped opposition members, spying on private life of opposition, cooked up courts of law cases, ignored basic human rights.
    The blue collars, small city, less educated people from the Ural Mountains have hardly noticed or understood anything. The creative class and the both Russian capitals have become disenchanted and opposing the regime.

    • Pet Czar says:

      Mr gennady, you writing off Mr Putin ! Can you not say something good about the man who governs a Super Power producing peace and cooperation? At least Putin is Russian, Obama is not American!
      The points you are trying to make are all repeated propaganda from the public sewer called International media!

  3. Hader says:

    It’s called the nostalgia effect, it refers to the finding that subjects later rate past events more positively than they had actually rated them when the? event occurred, reminiscent of the Latin phrase memoria praeteritorum bonorum (“The past is always recalled to be good”)



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



November 2012
« Oct   Dec »