The Snowden Sideshow

If you think U.S.-Russian relations are bad now, think back to 2008.


On August 7, the White House finally ended the suspense about whether or not President Barack Obama would visit Moscow after the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg this September. "Following a careful review begun in July," a statement by the president’s press secretary read, "we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September."

The timing couldn’t have been more symbolic. It was five years ago today that the sporadic firefights in South Ossetia and political fireworks between Moscow and Tbilisi devolved into a full-blown war, marking the nadir of post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relations. During the conflict that August, the U.S. principals committee — which includes the president, vice president, and other senior decision makers — considered the possibility of using military force to prevent Russia from continuing its assault on Georgia. Bombardment of the tunnel that Russian troops used to move into South Ossetia and other "surgical strikes" were among the options that were discussed and subsequently rejected.

Contemplating a war that would likely have resulted in nuclear Armageddon — even if the option was rejected — puts Obama’s snub to Putin in perspective. Clearly, if the cancelation of a meeting represents the low point of relations in 2013, it also signals how far the two former Cold War adversaries have come since 2008.

The usual chorus of reset bashers, led by basher-in-chief Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), will of course seize on Obama’s decision in order to proclaim that they were right all along: The reset was a woefully naïve, pointless exercise in covering up our fundamental differences with a Russian government that is bent on opposing U.S. interests abroad and crushing democracy at home.

Fortunately for the Obama administration, this caricature bears little resemblance to reality. Obama’s Russia policy did produce a long list of important results, from the New START agreement, which verifiably reduced both countries’ nuclear arsenals, to Russian WTO membership, which signaled Russia’s integration into the global economic order. And while the space for pluralism in the Russian public sphere has narrowed significantly since Putin’s return to the presidency, Russia is not North Korea — or even neighboring Belarus. And despite notable differences over issues like the conflict in Syria, Russia has actually been a crucial partner for achieving U.S. objectives internationally. Just take the agreements Obama reached with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 that allowed for overflights and rail-based transit through Russia to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Without that northern route, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. risking closure of the other major transit route — through Pakistan — with the operation to take out Osama bin Laden.

So why pull the plug on a summit with Putin — other than the desire to avoid another painfully awkward interaction? (At their last meeting, on the sidelines of the G8 in Northern Ireland, Putin seemed to revel in the opportunity to reject Obama’s attempts at bonhomie.) Although the Kremlin has been quick to frame the cancellation as a U.S. overreaction to its decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the truth is that the summit was on the verge of being scrapped even before the former NSA contractor reached the Sheremetyevo airport transit lounge.

After his reelection last year, Obama made a concerted effort to revive the reset, which had lost steam following a series of setbacks in 2012, including the booting out of USAID and Putin’s decision to use anti-American rhetoric to mobilize his electorate for his own reelection effort. In April, Obama dispatched National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Moscow with a letter addressed to Putin outlining a framework for cooperation on missile defense. Secretary of State John Kerry has met several times with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and visited Moscow in May, primarily to push ahead on a political settlement in Syria. Obama even proposed new mutual reductions of deployed strategic nuclear warheads in his Berlin speech in June — immediately following his bilateral meeting with Putin at the G8.

Despite the infamous body language, the têteàtête did produce some notable results, including a deal on bilateral cyber confidence-building measures and a successor to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement, which kept bilateral nonproliferation efforts on track. But beyond that, the bilateral agenda seems as barren as K Street in August. Moscow has yet to present a counterproposal to Obama’s April offer on missile defense cooperation and responded to the U.S. president’s Berlin speech with a pronounced lack of interest — the Kremlin has not even signaled willingness to engage in new negotiations, let alone interest in rapidly concluding a follow-on agreement to New START. And even on an issue that Putin himself says he is interested in — boosting bilateral trade and investment with Washington — there has been a combination of deafening silence and working-level backsliding on commitments made at the top.

So the question of "why bother" was already hanging in the Beltway’s sweltering summer air before Snowden decided that Moscow would be good spot to cool his heels. Russia’s decision to grant him temporary asylum was just the final nail in the coffin. But the Snowden episode is perhaps more important because it throws into relief the deep-seated pathologies of U.S.-Russia relations. His extended stay in Russia was an outcome that neither government wanted — whatever dividends Snowden’s laptops provided Russian intelligence services aside — but both governments took steps that made it inevitable. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Snowden affair confirmed that both Moscow and Washington are incapable of genuine partnership on politically charged matters. That would require taking into account the peculiarities of the other’s circumstances, accommodating those when possible, and seeking common ground — rather than making demands and expecting concessions. Although the Obama administration’s private communications with the Russian government were likely much more nuanced, Washington’s collective response to Snowden’s initial appearance in Sheremetyevo was heard in Moscow as a petulant ultimatum. The more that voices from inside the Beltway made demands on the Kremlin, the harder it became for Moscow to do anything but flip Washington the bird. Doing otherwise would have been tantamount to caving in to the United States — as politically damaging in Moscow as the reverse would be in Washington. 

The irony was that Putin believed he had found a way out — conditioning Snowden’s stay on a pledge not to harm U.S. interests. From his perspective, this was a real concession, even though it seemed ludicrous in Washington. So there was genuine surprise in Moscow when Washington did what anyone here could have told the Russians that it would: ridicule, reject, or ignore the move. Indeed, some saw the offer as Putin having a laugh at Obama’s expense. This mutual tone-deafness might seem like material for study in cross-cultural communication — if only the consequences weren’t so serious.

The Snowden affair also exposes the mutual hostility of large swaths of the national security establishment in both countries. Published accounts have alleged that it was the Russian intelligence services’ instinct to reject any and all U.S. requests — in this case, to block the former NSA contractor from boarding flights, an entreaty allegedly made of all countries to which Snowden could have flown directly from Hong Kong — that explains why Snowden ended up in Moscow. The underlying mutual suspicion was demonstrated again in the early July grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane: Clearly, the United States believed that Russian intelligence services could have surreptitiously ferreted Snowden onto the plane in the first place.

Finally, Washington’s snickering about the irony of Snowden’s "choice" of Russia demonstrates the way in which perceptions about Russia’s troubled post-Soviet political transition often hamper bilateral ties. Yes, the Russian government, especially in the last two years, has often cracked down on freedom of expression and imposed limits on civil society. But Russia does not espouse an ideology that is inimical to U.S. civic values in the way that the Soviet Union did. Russian politics and society are still in a state of transformation after 75 years of Soviet communism. The end point remains unknown, and the path has not been linear. But ridicule and finger wagging from Washington are unlikely to nudge it in the right direction.

On the Jay Leno show on August 6, Obama hinted at the next day’s news: "There have been times where [the Russians] slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," he said. "And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is: That’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do." Obama is certainly right that the two countries should be thinking about the future. But there are reasons — rooted in the past, for sure, but real reasons nonetheless — why the U.S. and Russia do not cooperate more effectively. Until and unless both sides make a serious joint effort to address the underlying pathologies in the relationship — something way beyond Obama’s reset — setbacks like the summit cancellation will be inevitable.

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