Chill Hits U.S.-Russia Ties as Obama, Putin Ready to Meet

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president. Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg

When Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin met for the first time in 2009, the new U.S. president had the political edge over the Russian veteran.

That was then. With the two countries at loggerheads over the Syria crisis and Iran’s suspect nuclear research, Putin will have the advantage when he and Obama meet again next week on the sidelines of an economic summit in Mexico. He’s back as president after a landslide victory in March, while Obama is facing a sluggish economy and a tough re-election battle against Republican Mitt Romney.

“Obama really has no leverage to deal with Putin,” said Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I don’t see that conversation going well.”

The Obama administration’s hopes for a “reset” of relations between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers are receding. While the two nations still share a number of interests -- notably promoting economic growth, speeding a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and combating Islamist terrorism -- they disagree about uprisings in Arab nations and missile defenses in Europe.

Putin snubbed Obama by declining to attend a G-8 economic summit the president hosted last month at the Camp David presidential retreat, and even now, there are echoes of the Cold War past. Yesterday, Putin said Russia needs a new strategic bomber, while the U.S. Air Force will award today a posthumous Silver Star, the military’s third-highest combat decoration, to Air Force Captain Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Looking Forward

“We are clear and transparent and frank about the areas where we disagree,” such as Syria, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday. Obama “looks forward” to meeting with Putin at the summit, he said.

While not even the most pessimistic analysts fear a return to the Cold War, the gulf between the U.S. and Russia widened with NATO’s role overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s government, like the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a longtime Soviet arms client.

Putin is deeply mistrustful of American motives, and suspects the Obama administration is advancing its own interests in trying to topple regimes it doesn’t like and replace them with U.S.-friendly governments, according to Kuchins.

Helicopter Feud

The deepening rift over how to deal with the conflict in Syria was on display this week when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of stoking the violence in Syria by delivering weapons and even attack helicopters to Assad’s forces.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov retorted that unlike the U.S., the Russians “aren’t shipping to Syria or anywhere else things that can be used against peaceful demonstrators.”

Those tensions will be highlighted during the Group of 20 gathering June 18-19 in the Mexican beach town of Los Cabos. While the sun is expected to shine over the meetings -- with temperatures of 34 degree Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) predicted -- Putin’s interactions with Obama aren’t forecast to be as warm.

Vying for a leading role as the peace broker in Syria, Russia wants to enlist Shiite Muslim Iran, as a neighbor with influence over Assad’s minority Alawite regime, in efforts to end the strife.

Clinton publicly rebuffed the idea on June 12, saying that it would be a “grave error” because Iran has trained and supported Syrian government forces and Alawite militias blamed for civilian massacres.

First Meeting

Even the president’s first meeting with Putin on July 7, 2009 -- halfway through Obama’s first year -- “did not go well at all,” Kuchins recalled. The atmosphere, he said, was tense because five days earlier Obama had told The Associated Press that Putin had to “understand that the old cold war approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated.”

“There were periods when our relations flourished quite a bit, and there were also periods of, shall we say, grayish mood between our two countries and of stagnation.” Putin told Obama during their first sit-down in the Oval Office.

The history between the U.S. and Russia had “shall we say, color,” he remarked.

In his overview of the Arab revolts, Putin has yet to be dissuaded that an autocrat doesn’t provide more stability than a young and uncertain opposition, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight, said in an e-mail.

A ‘Crusade’

After a delayed reaction to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. went into overdrive encouraging democratic transitions in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

Putin likened North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes against the North African country to a “crusade” and disagreed with Dmitry Medvedev, the acolyte he elevated to succeed him as president, who made the call that Russia would abstain from a United Nations resolution that authorized the no-fly zone.

Putin made it clear that when he regained full control, that mistake would never be repeated, and with China, Russia has twice vetoed Western attempts in the UN Security Council to put pressure on Assad.

At stake for Russia are economic and strategic interests in a part of world where its influence has waned since the collapse of communism. Its only military base outside the former Soviet Union is a naval maintenance and supply center in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.

Common Interests

Obama’s first impression of Putin, conveyed to CNN, was that the former KGB officer was “tough, smart, very unsentimental,” and that pragmatism remains evident in some spheres.

The Russians have cooperated with the U.S. and former Soviet republics in Central Asia in moving American and NATO supplies in and out of Afghanistan on the so-called Northern Distribution Network. Although the Russians retain considerable influence in the region, they also have posed no obstacles to American use of the Manas Transit Center and airfield in Kyrgyzstan, two U.S. officials active in managing Russo-American relations said this week.

Even so, they said, the shared view of the Islamic terrorist threat is partly what divides the U.S. and Russia on Syria.

Russia, battling Islamist groups in Chechnya and elsewhere, fears a radical Sunni takeover if Assad falls, while the U.S. thinks his demise would be a blow to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and to Iran, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Moreover, in the proxy battle in Syria between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran, Russia and the U.S. also are in opposing camps, Kuchins said.

“When push comes to shove, the Russians will pick Iran and the Americans the Saudis,” he said.