Obama’s Russian Reset Lost in Putin’s Translations

As international tension was rising last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned American President Barack Obama.

Putin was calling to discuss “a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine,” the White House said.

The Kremlin offered a starkly contrasting read-out of the same call: Putin drew Obama’s “attention” to the “rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation” in Ukraine. And Putin raised a new issue, the fate of another breakaway province: Transnistria.

A week later, with Russia holding the annexed peninsula of Crimea and Putin’s troops massed on the Ukraine border, the March 28 phone conversation sounds emblematic of two presidents talking past one another in a decaying U.S.-Russian relationship that Obama once hoped to “reset.”

“It’s been part of the problem all the way along in U.S.- Russia relations -- we’ve just not been in the same frame of reference,” said Fiona Hill, director of The Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research organization. “When you do a read-out of the calls, you get something that seems diametrically different.”

The call became viral fodder for late-night comedy, with Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” presenting actors in the roles of the two leaders in a clip viewed by 2.5 million on YouTube: ``You invaded Crimea,'' the Obama player said in the skit. “No, no, no, you got it backward, my friend,” the Putin player replied. “Technically, Crimea invade us.”

Personal Differences

At times, the differences have seemed personal.

Obama has likened Putin to a “bored kid in the back of the classroom” in their public appearances together. And, on the morning of their discussion about Ukraine, CBS News broadcast an interview of Obama suggesting that it’s time that Putin got over the breakup of the Soviet Union.

“He’s been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,” Obama said of Putin in that interview. “You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward does not revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War.”

Indeed, the roots of their differences lie in divergent views of that history and the significance of Crimea today.

“First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin told his nation in 2005, years before Obama’s first election as president.

‘Genuine Tragedy’

“As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,” he said.

Now, as Russia reclaims a slice of that territory in Crimea, alarms NATO and Ukrainian leaders alike about further intentions and even raises anew issues such as the fate of Transnistria, the American leader is aligned with Europeans who view Russian expansionism as a threat to the continent’s order.

“There is no question that the relationship has deteriorated,” Hill, co-author of the book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” said in an interview about Putin and Obama. “It was always going to be a challenge with Putin, but we have been here before. We have looked at Russia from our own framework and we have always done this,” she said. “We say things like, ’He wouldn’t possibly annex Crimea.’”

Worlds Apart

Putin “inhabits a different world from the world we’re in,” she said. “The fact that his world view is so different from ours means that what he says makes sense to him, but not to us.”

In addition to a decade’s gap between Obama, 52, and Putin, 61, the two leaders “come from very different contexts in their own societies, someone coming from the KGB and someone coming from elite educational institutions,” Hill said.

How quickly their contact has chilled: Putin made his debut on Twitter on Nov. 8, 2012 with a message from @PutinRF_Eng, his English-language account, to the newly re-elected U.S. president: “Congratulations to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.” And as recently as March of this year, Putin has tweeted notes about his phone calls with Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others.

When Obama’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, arrived in Geneva for a March 2009 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, she carried an oversized red re-set button as a symbol of U.S. intentions. Clinton and Lavrov stood laughing, posing for photographers with the diplomatic gift.

Early Moves

The Obama administration went on to offer concessions aimed at improving that relationship. The U.S. withdrew plans for deploying missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic that the Bush administration had pursued as a defense against “rogue” threats such as Iran. Putin resisted the arrangement as too close to Russia for comfort.

Since last year, the refuge that Russia has provided for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor indicted for espionage in the U.S. after stealing and releasing volumes of data about American surveillance programs, has added new stressors to Obama’s relationship with Putin.

Obama called off a meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit the Russians hosted in St. Petersburg. Obama said at an Aug. 9 news conference that the cancellation was not prompted by the Snowden situation alone -- “It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved,” Obama said.

‘Body Language’

Asked how he can accomplish anything with Russia “without having a good relationship with Putin,” Obama said: “I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt. Oftentimes, they’re constructive.

‘‘I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”

The civil war in Syria, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million refugees, also has tested the U.S.-Russian relationship. Some say Obama’s handling of that crisis offered Putin an opening to assert greater power of his own in the face of U.S. actions.

When Syrian forces deployed chemical weapons, crossing what Obama publicly had termed a “red line” that would mean consequences, Obama left to Congress the decision about taking any military action against the government of Bashar al-Assad, a Putin ally. With Russian assistance in the negotiations, that was averted as Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical weaponry, though the war has continued with Russian support for Assad.

Putin’s Exploitation

“That was clearly a sign of weakness” on Obama’s part, Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a meeting with Bloomberg editors and reporters this week. “And you don’t deal with an adversary like Putin in a way that gives him an upper hand.”

“Putin has exploited that,” Chambliss said. “He was not a leader on the world stage at that point in time. And Obama gave him the opportunity to do that, or to present himself that way. And he did it.”

In their latest talk about the situation in Ukraine, the American president had a request for the Russian leader.

During the call from Putin, the White House said, Obama spoke of the U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis and “suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing” and the presidents agreed that Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov “would meet to discuss next steps.”

Kerry and Lavrov met in Paris over the weekend -- without any public show of laughter or reset buttons.

And Putin hasn’t handed in that homework yet.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net John Walcott

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.