Why Should Obama Visit Russia for a Putin Summit?

Posted July 19th, 2013 at 3:57 am (UTC+0)

In court on Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, embraces his wife, Yulia, before going to prison for a start of a 5-year jail term. Navalny was released Friday, apparently in order to make Moscow mayoral race seem more competitive. Photo: Ria Novosti

Why is Barack Obama planning to be in Moscow in early September for a two-day summit with Vladimir Putin?

Mystery to me.

Thursday’s conviction and sentencing Alexei Navalny make the Putin government increasingly look like a South American military dictatorship from the 1970s. And you can be sure that American presidents, especially Democratic ones, did not do photo ops with likes of Chile’s President Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In year XIV of Putinism, opposition politicians go to jail, pro-government governors rule all the regions, and votes in the Duma like the old unanimous hand raising drills in the Supreme Soviet. The Russian state tightly controls television, police intimidate protesters and prosecutors close down human rights groups and other NGOs.

Sounds a lot like Brazil 1972, Chile 1976 and Argentina 1979. During that era, American presidents generally kept the generals at arm’s length. Even when they wore business suits, like Mr. Putin.

After what critics called “a show trial” Russia’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was taken to jail Thursday. Within hours, thousands of people, largely young professionals, gathered in an unauthorized “flash mob” to protest Navalny’s conviction and jailing.

In the realpolitik of today’s world, Putin needs Obama more than Obama needs Putin.

The planned Moscow summit Sept. 3-4 will boost Putin’s prestige at home and abroad. For Obama, it could turn out to be red meat for the Republicans.

The last 24 hours have seen Republicans in Washington:
 assail the jailing of Navalny, the leading opposition politician of Russia’s post-Soviet generation
 one Senator, Lindsey Graham, saying the U.S. should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics if Russia grants asylum to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Indeed, for the last month, the Putin government has been harboring Snowden, the individual who has delivered the biggest blow in recent years to the images of the United States and of President Obama.

Of course, President Putin tries to have it both ways – keeping Snowden under control of government agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, but then saying the fugitive American intelligence expert is an unwanted visitor.

Putin asks Snowden not to attack “our American partners.” But Russia’s leader does not send Snowden on his way — either in the custody of a U.S. Federal Marshall on the next Aeroflot to Washington, or in the back of a Russian Bear bomber to Caracas.

Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for the International Herald Tribune, recalls the “reset” policy that successfully lowered tensions between the U.S. and Russia during the first Obama term.

Snowden’s Kremlin-friendly asylum lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, reported Wednesday that his client promises to stop “harming our U.S. partners.” The lawyer added: “I believe we should trust him. Naturally, we can’t sign any document with him to that effect.”

Hmm, he might ask the National Security Administration how well Snowden keeps a promise.

What would be the deliverables of the Putin – Obama summit?

So far, it looks like two days of meetings for the sake of meetings.

On Syria, the Kremlin greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks initiative by dispatching ship-sinking and aircraft-downing missiles to Syria. Russian military aid seems to be tipping the balance in Syria’s civil war, pushing peace talks further and further down the road.

On President Obama’s nuclear arms cuts proposal, the Kremlin poked so many holes in the idea that it seems to be a non-starter. (On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed an Obama Administration arms control report with language that seemed borrowed from a North Korean diplomatic dictionary: “The new report gives an impression that the United States is stuck in the vise of Cold War propaganda although the world has long since changed…The stubborn wish of our American partners to judge and brand others is being accompanied with the persistent unwillingness to look in the mirror.”)

Both countries generally see eye to eye on controlling nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea. But both these countries border Russia – North Korea by land and Iran by sea. Given this geography, Russia has a real interest in curbing nuclear weapons in its neighborhood.

Then there is the famous personal presidential chemistry that historically can bubble up during a summit.

But it should be clear by now that the chemistry between the two leaders has been bad.

Whenever the two presidents meet, Putin looks bored or uncomfortable.

At the G-8 summit in Camp David last year, the Russian president stood up the American host by pulling out at the last minute, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. The next month, at the G-20 meeting in Mexico, the Russian leader showed up half an hour late for his meeting with Obama.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Vladivostok, Putin timed the meeting so the American president could not come. It was in early September, during the final stretch of the American presidential campaign.

So it is not as if Obama feels he should go to Moscow to repay a fistful of social IOUs to Vladimir Putin.

And there are the great intangibles: the symbolism and responsibility that comes with leading the world’s most powerful democracy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this responsibility prompted most American presidents to keep South America’s military leaders at a distance.

If President Obama is starting to think legacy in his second term, here is a vision to ponder.

Twenty years from now, Vladimir Putin, age 80, could be looking like Hosni Mubarak.

Twenty years from now, Alexei Navalny, age 57, could be the next president of Russia.

The turn of generational wheels can cause surprises.

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.

5 responses to “Why Should Obama Visit Russia for a Putin Summit?”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. The strong points made by the author can’t be debated. There’s none to counterargument. What new breakthroughs can be anticipated in the preplanned Obama-Putin Summit with Russia ruled on the pattern resembling Brazil 1972, Chile 1976 and Argentina 1979? There is none in view.
    2. Even worse. What kind of Summit would it be with a country that looks as if it has lost its way? Take recent developments in Russia in year XIV of Putinism.
    a) The Kremlin’s logic looks bizarre in dealing with Snowden case. How a country may justify to harbor a person who by experts ‘opinion is under the influence of his severe mental disorder http://www.rbcdaily.ru/politics/562949987925773?utm_source=gismeteo&utm_medium=news&utm_campaign=gism_daily5, who has broken his legal commitments in his responsible employment by stealing trusted to him sensitive information and blackmailing by threat of revealing it? As if the Kremlin can’t be with its own “Snowden”?
    b) Never ever the world has had the opportunities to marvel and wonder how justice is done in Russia. Take the case brought against Mr. Navalny: two times earlier the same charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, the judge chosen for the third attempt to cage Mr. Navalny didn’t pronounce a single “no guilty” verdict in his previous 150 cases in 18 months, the courts of law case had signs of petty revenge for defendant’s political views, the defendant was on unpaid job for performing his duties, he didn’t sign any document that led to the “crime”, witnesses of prosecution contradicted themselves, the judge’s ruling copied the prosecution’s statement, but nevertheless the defendant was sentenced to five years in prison, handcuffed, and put into a cell with the uncompromising prosecution begging the next day for the immediate release of the “criminal”. It would be a thriller to watch if the Hollywood made it to the celluloid.

  2. Dorothy says:

    Unbelievably it still hasn’t occurred to Putin that the first duty of any Russian president should be to ensure that America’s interests are placed at the forefront of Russian foreign and domestic policy.
    He just doesn’t get it, and as long as he doesn’t get it there is no point in Obama even talking to him, let alone going for a stroll with him, or taking his toys over and letting Putin push the buttons on them!

    True, Navalny has and probably will continue do as told for just a fish or two, but considering that only about 6% of Russians have ever even heard of him he still has a long long way to go.
    Italian parliamentarian Cicciolina for example, was much better known, had more integrity and was more popular, but ultimately unsuccessful in becoming the Italian president.

    Sadly Navalny is likely to become even less popular in Russia as the Russian public becomes more aware of his past and his funding, and more suspect of his loyalties.
    Although much more popular in the USA than in Russia his prospects of a political career there are also highly unlikely.

    Already married with a beautiful wife should Navalny ever convert to Islam it might do well to suggest to him the merits of also marrying all the Pussy Riot girls who might still be single.
    They could teach the old girl some tricks they’ve picked up in jail and by then Alexei would have learned a few himself.
    The US embassy would also then only have to post the one check whenever they deemed it worth posting.

    But importantly for Navalny the more people he has taking showers with him the better should he ever decide to get off that payroll.

    Look at what happened to Berezovsky when it seemed he was about to become renegade and leave the scene with compromising information.
    A far smarter operator than Navalny will ever be he still made the fatal mistake of bathing alone at that critical juncture in his career.
    If such a situation ever develops Navalny would be wise to insist that his new wives only ever wear their balaclavas to church but never in the house.
    You can’t be too careful.

    Yes, it can be frustrating, but the fact of the matter is that another Boris Yeltsin is unlikely to come along again for a very long time.

  3. Gennady says:

    To Dorothy:
    1. Your words sound as sarcasm: “Unbelievably it still hasn’t occurred to Putin that the first duty of any Russian president should be to ensure that America’s interests are placed at the forefront of Russian foreign and domestic policy.”
    Certainly, that wasn’t, isn’t and won’t be the case.
    But nevertheless, the article is true in the point that the Summit Obama-Putin is very much needed to Mr. Putin to boost his ego as a leader of the secondary country in deep economic/financial/military/scientific/demographic/educational/health care crisis.
    2. Then you’ve got distracted from the subject of the article very much with your very original “vision” of prominent public figures who have been opposing to the iron rule of Mr. Putin (Navalny, Pussy Riot, Beresovsky) and have praised very dark figure in Russia’s history who let Mr. Putin in to the political Olympus through backdoor (Boris Yeltsin).
    I wonder if you work on Lubyanka Square, don’t you?
    Even one more clue. “By accident” you’ve mentioned an Italian politician.
    You know that Mr.Putin very sympathizes to Italians, among them his friend – besieged Mr. Berlusconi.
    3. I’ll disappoint you that your vision of political prospects of Mr. Navalny doesn’t correspond to the reality: “Sadly Navalny is likely to become even less popular in Russia as the Russian public becomes more aware of his past and his funding, and more suspect of his loyalties. Although much more popular in the USA than in Russia his prospects of a political career there are also highly unlikely.”
    4. Certainly, the FSB regime won’t spare anything to tarnish Mr. Navalny, very charismatic and promising figure for future Russia.
    I’m sure, if the strategy of smearing him fails, then, in order to commemorate the FSB regime, there always is a little bit of polonium or some other sophisticated thing in a stock to eliminate Mr. Navalny from politics. And Russians won’t ever know who has done this.

  4. rkka says:

    Jimmy’s just upset that deaths in Russia no longer exceed births by a million a year, like they did when Boris the Sot was running Russia and signing every piece of paper the US govt asked him to.

    Too bad for Jimmy and his employer.

  5. Would Snowden have received a fair court in United States if Russia had not given him the asylum grant? I think it’s controversial there. And Russia has prompted many time over the last month that they would give the asylum for Snowden, then it is apparently not a big surprise.



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.



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