The Lowy Interpreter

By Gorana Grgic

For some, the announcement that US President Barack Obama decided against meeting Vladimir Putin in early September is a signal of the beginning of a new Cold War. Others argue it is the ultimate evidence of failure of the Obama Administration's policy towards Russia.

It is the first time in half a century that the highest-level talks between a US president and his Russian counterpart have been cancelled. The last was when Nikita Khrushchev refused to meet President Eisenhower after the Soviets shot down a US spy plane in their airspace.

Obama's decision not to meet Putin can be best seen as just another setback in a relationship that has been far from functioning in recent times. Yet all the talk of freezing relations between Washington and Moscow seems to be misplaced.

In the past year or two, Russia has had several opportunities to stand up to the US, which undoubtedly felt good for those in Kremlin. Moscow has been persistent in its support to the Syrian regime, hostile towards American non-profit organisations operating in Russia, banned adoptions of Russian children by Americans, publicly shamed an undercover CIA operative, and now provided asylum to one of the most wanted Americans.

As many students of international relations know, diversionary foreign policy is often a good way of getting domestic support, especially if the leader is struggling with popularity at home. Ever since December 2011, Russia's ruling party and its leader have faced ongoing protests over alleged electoral fraud, corruption and human rights abuses. It is not hard to see how challenging the US becomes a handy way to deflect from problems at home.

Moreover, the NSA scandal provided Russia with the perfect chance to engage in Soviet-style 'whataboutism'. By granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the Russian leadership has secured the right to call on the US for acting hypocritically. In other words, you cannot accuse Russia of breaching human rights and privacy invasion if you have spied on both your own and foreign citizens, and if you want to arrest the man who pointed to these practices.

The second reason why 'postponement' of the meeting should be seen as chilling, rather than freezing, of US–Russia relations is that high-level negotiations will still proceed. President Obama is expected to travel to St Petersburg to attend the G20 meeting, where it is inevitable that the two leaders will meet in a broader setting. Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are both hosting talks with their Russian colleagues in Washington, DC.

This comes despite the fact that some Republicans are calling on Obama to be tougher on Russia. Senator John McCain criticised the White House for acting as if Russia was a partner and not an adversary. Kori Schake, a former Bush staffer, wrote that the major flaw in Obama's Russia policy is that he 'pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal'.

Probably the most pragmatic way of looking at these recent developments is to estimate the cost of the postponement.

Currently the greatest roadblocks in US-Russian relations are missile defense, nuclear arms reduction, and the war in Syria. There were two big opportunities earlier this year to move forward on these matters. The first one was after NSA Adviser Tom Donilon hand-delivered Obama's letter to Putin in April. The second was at a meeting on the sidelines of the G8 summit in June.

Putin seemed unimpressed by Obama's proposals in the first instance, and only the political satirists and meme-creators were pleased about the tête-à-tête in Northern Ireland. So even if not for the whole Snowden affair, it is hard to imagine there would have been much progress at the summit.

PS. Whatever happens, one thing is certain, Barack and Vladimir will never have as much fun as Bill and Boris.

This article was originally published at The Lowy Interpreter