Today, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are meeting at the G-20 summit in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This meeting is likely will be tense, as the two leaders have fundamentally different agendas regarding some of the most pressing international problems.
While President Obama is worried about his re-election, Putin is trying to reassert Russia’s role as the second “indispensable power” that is balancing the U.S. in the global arena. An agreement between Putin and Obama is unlikely.
Syria is Exhibit A. While Bashar al-Assad’s government slaughters dozens of civilians every week, Russia has been a roadblock to any meaningful action against the abusive regime. It has virtually blocked serious United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on the Assad regime. Russia’s main objective is to re-establish a presence in the Middle East while limiting U.S. influence in the region and preserving lucrative arms sales contracts.
Iran is Exhibit B. Despite the Obama Administration’s desperate efforts, it failed to secure Russian cooperation countering Iranian nuclear appetites.
While Russia agreed to UNSC sanctions in 2010 and is hosting negotiations between UNSC permanent members plus Germany and the Iranian government, it is opposing the use of military power and is doing little to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Finally, Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation is Exhibit C. Tens of thousands of Russians regularly protest on the streets of Moscow and other towns against rampant corruption, manipulation of elections, and prosecutions of members of Russia’s opposition parties. So far, the protests led to prolonged and abusive searches of opposition party members’ homes, arrests, beatings of over 400 demonstrators, and skyrocketing fines for protest organizers and participants.
America should not ignore the abysmal track record of the rule of law in Russia and the spread of corruption and organized crime. As we wrote recently, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would not only empower the U.S. government to take action against individuals involved in human rights violations; it would also send a clear message that the U.S. will support freedom and the rule of law in other countries.
Russia’s repressive domestic policy and obstructive foreign behavior on issues essential to U.S. national interests is a result of President Obama’s failed “reset” policy. He chose not to criticize Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation and pursued the Cold War–style New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty mandating U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions. In return, however, Putin ran and won elections on a platform emphasizing anti-Americanism, and he has created a straw man of a Russia under attack from Western enemies.
To further send a signal to Washington, Putin chose not to attend the G-8 summit at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago. Instead, he went to China for his first presidential visit.
It is time to recognize that the “reset” policy has reset U.S.–Russia relations back to the Cold War and is in a dire need of re-assessment. To improve the situation, Obama should have told Putin that Russian cooperative behavior on Iran and Syria are the litmus test of the U.S.–Russian relations that and there will be consequences if this warning is not heeded.
Regrettably, the President could not do even that.