Putin's anti-US measures more spiteful than strategic

By Charles A. Kupchan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-19 19:43:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Relations between Russia and the US were on a roller coaster ride recently.

On August 7, the White House cancelled the planned September summit between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin, citing Russia's decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden and the "lack of progress" on missile defense and a range of other issues.

Two days later, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosted their Russian counterparts in Washington, smoothing over relations between Washington and Moscow and vowing to deepen ties between the US and Russian militaries.

Despite the mixed messages, it was a decidedly bad week for US-Russian relations. The "reset" with Russia that Obama successfully pursued during his first term is now on ice.

With the White House and the Kremlin now openly estranged, cooperation on Syria, Iran, arms control, and other pressing matters will be harder to come by.

To be sure, officials in Washington and Moscow have built up durable networks of communication at the working level, and the two countries have compatible interests on many fronts, insuring against a return to the entrenched hostility of the past. But the prospects for a lasting rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries have nonetheless been dealt a serious setback.

Obama was right to cancel his summit with Putin. Indeed, the White House has shown impressive patience with a Kremlin that has grown increasingly confrontational of late.

Since returning to the Russian presidency, Putin has been on a collision course with Obama, taking issues with Washington on one front after the other. Asylum for Snowden was the last straw, giving the White House good reason to express its exasperation and to view the scheduled summit as an exercise in futility.

What is most troubling about Putin's combative behavior is that it seems to have become purely obstructionist and gratuitous.

If his persistent readiness to take on Washington was in the pursuit of clear Russian interests, it would be easier to justify. But at least for now, picking fights with Washington seems to have become an end in itself.

It used to be that Moscow's protestations toward the US were not without reason.

The Kremlin's objections to NATO expansion were understandable; a formidable alliance was moving its frontier closer to Russia's borders. And there were legitimate reasons for Moscow to be upset with NATO's intervention in Libya; the operation ultimately went beyond the UN mandate's focus on protecting civilians.

But now Putin seems to be motivated primarily by spite toward Washington, not strategic interest.

In Syria, the Kremlin is aiding and abetting government forces. In response to recent US sanctions against human rights violators, Putin banned US parents from adopting Russian children. Giving Snowden asylum in Russia serves no national purpose other than angering Washington.

And it is certainly ironic that a leader who spent years in the KGB would give safe harbor to an intelligence agent who so flagrantly violated the profession's code of conduct.

With Putin so determined to play the role of spoiler in US-Russian relations, Obama was left with little choice but to conclude that it is "probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going... and recalibrate the relationship."

The rift that has opened between the White House and the Kremlin does not mean the end of dialogue and cooperation between the US and Russia.

As the recent meetings hosted by Kerry and Hagel made clear, cabinet officers and lower-level officials on both sides will keep the channels of communication open.

That is good news. US-Russian teamwork is still needed on many issues, including arms control, nonproliferation, energy security, Afghanistan, and Syria.

And when the timing is right, ongoing teamwork between the two countries should provide an opportunity for Obama and Putin to put their relationship back on track.

For that to happen, however, Putin will have to demonstrate better intentions. At least for now, the ball is in Putin's court.

The author is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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