By Konrad Putzier
If President Barack Obama was ever bullied as a kid then his current treatment at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin is bound to bring back painful memories. Recently, Putin gave Obama the foreign-policy equivalent of a wedgie by hosting NSA leaker Edward Snowden, threw metaphorical paper planes at him by supplying Syrian President Bashar Assad with missiles, and indulged in name-calling, recently branding U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a liar. Like a typical bully, Vladimir Putin doesn’t have to fear any real retribution. The past months have revealed that Obama hardly has any leverage over his Russian counterpart.
Observers have been quick to compare the current downturn in U.S.-Russian relations to the Cold War. However, prospects for cooperation during the Cold War were actually far greater then than they are now. Usually any agreement between states is likely only if both sides have something to gain. The Cold War never escalated because a balance of power created an environment that made mutually beneficial agreements possible (not to mention the threat of mutually assured destruction). For example, Austria became independent of Soviet influence when the U.S.S.R. removed its troops in exchange for the Austrians not joining N.A.T.O. Similarly, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended when Russia and the U.S. agreed to withdraw threatening missiles from Cuba and Turkey respectively. In each case the U.S. always had something they wanted from the U.S.S.R., and vice-versa.
Today, this balance of power no longer exists. There is a lot President Obama wants from Putin – an agreement on Syria, respect for human rights, nuclear disarmament, Edward Snowden in U.S. custody – but hardly anything he can offer in return. The U.S.’s typical bargaining tool of free trade agreements doesn’t work with Russia because Putin has never shown much interest in WTO-style liberalization and feels comfortable relying on energy exports to neighboring countries. Unlike Obama, Putin is lukewarm on nuclear disarmament, his arsenal being the last thing that gives Russia an illusion of world-power status.
President Obama is not only short on offers he can make, he also has little room for threats. Last week’s Economist editorial suggested Obama could apply pressure through three steps: speeding up Ukraine’s membership to the E.U., unmasking Russian spies at N.A.T.O., and “confronting” Russia “more boldly” in the O.S.C.E. The first step is beyond Obama’s power and wrought with its own problems (namely Ukraine being unfit to join the E.U. at this point), the second is virtually impossible, and the third merely symbolic.
Obama’s lack of leverage is the result of his failed “reset” with Russia. Five years ago, the planned U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe along with Georgian and Ukrainian desire to join N.A.T.O. were promising bargaining chips – something that could have now been abandoned in exchange for concessions on Syria. But disagreements within N.A.T.O. have stalled its expansion – there is still no date for possible Georgian or Ukrainian membership bids. And in 2009, Obama cancelled the missile shield in Poland. The move was part of a boldly proclaimed “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. Obama thought that if he removed the major bones of contention, Putin would eventually return the favor and enable friendly bilateral ties.
Though this assumption didn’t sound entirely unreasonable it was based on two fatal miscalculations. First, Obama failed to see that in Putin’s slightly irrational worldview, concessions are never signs of good will, but signs of weakness waiting to be exploited. More importantly, Obama assumed Putin has an interest in good relations with the U.S., when, as has been demonstrated, the opposite is the case. Anti-Americanism is rampant in Russia and is a valuable tool for populist politics. Many Russians, long unhappy about the decline of their country’s global standing since the 1980s, thoroughly enjoy watching their leader confront the U.S. on a global stage.
Putin has shrewdly exploited this sentiment. In fact, strengthening his domestic support is arguably a main motivation for his recalcitrance on both Snowden and Syria. Harboring Snowden serves no strategic interest other than showing Putin’s voters he is bravely making a stand against the evil U.S. Similarly, Russia’s strategic interests in Syria have too often been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the Russian naval base in Tartus has little strategic value, and the threat of terrorism spreading from Syria to Russia is minimal. Rather, Syria simply offers Putin another stage on which he can play world power politics and confront the U.S. while giving the Russian people the spectacle they are longing for.
Instead of ushering in an era of friendship, Obama’s “reset” has led to the worst of all possible outcomes: a situation in which Putin has much to gain from confrontation, but little from cooperation. The “reset” policy was about as useful as a middle-school kid offering his bully antagonist a candy bar in the hope that the small offering will solve a more deeply ingrained problem. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s President still pushes Obama around whenever he can.
This situation has greatly complicated efforts to put pressure on Assad. The U.S. considered horse-trading with Putin over Syria in 2012, according to government sources quoted by The Wall Street Journal, but concluded that Putin wouldn’t agree to any deal. In other words: there was – and is – not enough leverage.
Leverage vis-à-vis Moscow likely can’t be regained in time to end Russia’s support of Assad and find a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Any sudden act of diplomatic aggression – as Obama timidly attempted by cancelling a meeting with Putin in August – will only play into Putin’s cards, giving him yet another opportunity to present himself as the good guy defending Russia against a hostile superpower.
The best the U.S. can do is to learn from their mistakes and ensure they will never again be in as weak a position vis-à-vis Russia as they are now. The failure of Obama’s “reset” has made one fact painfully clear: there won’t be good relations with Russia anytime soon, simply because Putin doesn’t want them.
Rather than make concessions the U.S. should confront Russia head-on and try to amass as many bargaining chips as possible. It should strengthen its ties with Russia’s neighbors, speed up the Georgian and Ukrainian N.A.T.O. membership bids, and do everything in its power to isolate Russia economically. This process will take years but should eventually yield results. The more embattled Putin is, the higher the odds for a deal in the long run. The U.S. has little to lose and much to gain: at the moment bilateral ties with Russia are almost as bad as they can be, and unlike China, Russia is of little importance to the U.S. economy.
In a twist of Freudian fate, Putin, who himself suffered from bullying as a child according to a leaked C.I.A. profile, must draw great satisfaction from pushing around the world’s most powerful man. He should savor it while he can: if Obama takes the right steps, Russia’s President will soon have much less fun with the U.S.
Konrad Putzier is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of the White House]