The White House’s decision earlier this month to call off a Moscow summit with Vladimir Putin, but not President Obama’s trip next week to a Putin-hosted meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg, occasioned a rare burst of bipartisan agreement. In Washington, there’s a spreading trope that the Russian leader is making himself irrelevant and the president should not waste time trying to patch things up. After Russia’s decision to extend asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Obama has now declared a “pause” to reassess relations. The president told reporters that Snowden was “just one more” in a list of disagreements, including Moscow’s enabling of Syria and Russia’s abysmal human-rights record (his language was still studiously mild), adding that he hoped over time Putin would recognize that working together was better than “a zero-sum competition.”
For now that’s a remote prospect. The likelihood of a U.S.-led military strike against Syria in response to the regime’s Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack has already deepened the freeze in U.S.-Russia relations. Envoys from the two countries were scheduled to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss plans for an international peace conference on Syria, but that’s been shelved. The Russian foreign ministry is warning that U.S. intervention in Syria’s war would have “catastrophic consequences.”
One of the luxuries of the end of the Cold War is that even bitter relations with Moscow are unlikely to lead to a direct confrontation. But is Russia irrelevant? If there’s any doubt about the answer, consider two numbers: 8,500 and 1. The former is the number of nuclear weapons still in Russia’s stockpile, and the latter is how many votes it takes to paralyze action at the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow has repeatedly blocked efforts to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Any strikes by the U.S. and its allies against Syria will almost certainly lack Security Council authorization. Putin is convinced his predecessor and protégé Dmitry Medvedev got rolled when Russia abstained on a 2011 resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan citizens and NATO used that mandate to overthrow another of Moscow’s murderous former customers, Muammar Qaddafi. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on Tuesday that Syrian rebels were likely responsible for the chemical attack and that any move against Syria without the council’s endorsement would be a “very grave violation of international law.”
As appealing as it may be, simply ignoring the Kremlin isn’t an option. Without Putin, there is no chance of progress on arms control—one of Obama’s top legacy issues that would undoubtedly make the world a safer place. Russia has refused to consider another deal without an additional binding agreement guaranteeing that a European-based missile defense system would never pose a threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Gary Samore, White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction during Obama’s first term, says the problem isn’t strategic, it’s political. “No American president can get the Senate to ratify” any limits on missile defense. In the current atmosphere, he adds, it looks like the Russians aren’t even “going to do us the courtesy of talking about” these issues.
Even so, cabinet-level meetings have continued and there still may be areas to work together. Russia’s help in investigating the Boston Marathon bombing was a reminder that the two countries share a vulnerability to terrorism. Russia wants to avoid a U.S.-led attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Samore, who now heads Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, believes that if Washington and Moscow cooperate, “there is a potential opportunity” for a deal with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, thinks there’s little chance relations will improve any time soon. He says that Putin “sees the American president as someone who is not hard enough domestically to live up to his promises” and that Obama canceled their meeting because of political pressure. Trenin predicts that relations will get even worse if the U.S. and its allies attack Syria and that “more isolation from the U.S. will probably make Putin more defiant.”
Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and now president of the Brookings Institution, says that despite Putin’s “cockiness,” Russia “has got immense vulnerability—especially economic and demographic—down the road.” He warns that Putin’s “atavistic and nationalistic” rhetoric will further alienate Russia’s neighbors and make foreign investors even more wary.
Continuing to bully and jail the country’s best and brightest will make Russia even less competitive. And continuing to make common cause with pariahs like Assad will, rightly, further damage Russia’s reputation and, one hopes, its influence. U.S. officials say they have privately warned Putin of all of those dangers. Now it’s time to go public. Though Putin is unlikely to listen, Russians who have been all too willing to trade democracy for a promise of stability, economic growth, and global clout (if only as a spoiler) need to know that they are getting a bad deal. Russia is running out of friends and time.