When President Obama first came into office in January 2009, his administration announced that it wanted to improve Russian-American relations, which it believed had deteriorated due to the unilateral and interventionist actions of the outgoing Bush administration. Despite Obama’s good intentions and considerable efforts, however, Russian-American relations have only grown worse in the last few years. The Edward Snowden affair and Obama’s cancellation of his planned trip to Moscow this September are just the latest worrying instances in the deteriorating bilateral relationship. Since the outset of Obama’s term, he and Putin have disagreed on a wide range of issues, including Iran, Libya, Syria, ballistic missile defense (BMD), human rights, and many more. Is there any hope for improvement in Russian-American relations? At least one thing is very clear: in order to revamp their relationship, both Obama and Putin will have to overcome their feelings of frustration with the other. The Obama administration certainly has good reason to be frustrated with Putin, especially given Moscow’s reluctance to pressure Iran on its nuclear program. A non-nuclear Iran is just as much in Russia’s interests as everyone else’s; Iran claims that its nuclear program is “for peaceful purposes only,” but many fear that is not the truth. Moscow has also resisted the very limited American BMD plan, which is intended to protect against nuclear threats from rogue actors with small arsenals such as North Korea or Iran. Putin’s justification is that the plan would threaten Russian security, even though it could not possibly intercept a large-scale nuclear attack of the sort that Russia could mount. Regarding Syria, Putin has refused to allow even mild UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against the Assad regime, permitting Assad to slaughter his own citizens with impunity. In fact, Putin has repeatedly claimed that the West overstepped the terms of the 2011 UNSC resolution when it called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Putin’s argument that it is necessary for Russia to block a UNSC resolution on Syria or the West will again overstep its boundaries seems quite hypocritical, especially since Moscow has improved relations with Libya’s new government. Furthermore, Moscow’s claim that Washington is seeking to undermine the Putin administration by promoting democracy and human rights in Russia is simply ludicrous. The Obama administration has avoided doing anything like this, and should not be blamed when Putin’s own actions have caused large-scale public demonstrations in Russia (as occurred in 2011-12) or motivated the U.S. Congress to pass measures such as the Magnitsky Act. Nevertheless, the Putin administration has its own reasons to be frustrated with the Obama administration. First of all, Moscow wonders why Washington is focusing on an unlikely nuclear threat from Iran—which, as a rational actor, is hardly likely to use nuclear weapons should it acquire them—and not on the actual threat posed by Saudi and Qatari support for Sunni radicals. Moreover, as bad as the Assad regime is, Moscow believes that its most likely replacement is a Sunni radical regime, which would be a far greater threat not only to Russia and the West but also to Israel, a state that the United States has historically gone to great lengths to defend. As the Israelis themselves have pointed out, despite Syrian aid to the anti-Israeli Shi’a movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel has had peace on its border with Syria since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war until just recently. The Israelis do not believe that a Sunni radical regime would be so circumspect. Furthermore, in regards to American claims that BMD deployment is needed against Iran and North Korea, Moscow remains deeply skeptical; it sees the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang to be not suicidal, however unpleasant they may be. Moscow believes that Washington is also well aware of this, and is only using these regimes as an excuse to begin building a BMD system targeted against Russia. Finally, Moscow doubts Washington’s sincerity about not wanting to undermine Putin’s regime. The Kremlin was genuinely shocked by the Obama administration’s actions vis-à-vis Egypt and Libya during the Arab Spring of 2011. Egyptian President Mubarak had been a loyal American ally for decades; the Obama administration, however, not only did nothing to defend him, but appeared eager to eject him from office as quickly as possible. America’s betrayal of Qaddafi was even worse from Moscow’s viewpoint—even though the Libyan leader agreed to a rapprochement with the United States in 2003, which included a humiliating surrender of all elements of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program, the Obama Administration actively intervened in Libya and brought about not only Qaddafi’s downfall, but also his death. If the Obama administration was willing to—in Russia’s opinion—betray Mubarak and Qaddafi, who were cooperating with the United States, Moscow may be wondering if Washington would treat Putin in the same way if it had the chance. It could be safer for Putin to maintain adversarial relations with the United States to keep American influence in Russia at bay, rather than provide Obama with greater opportunity to undermine him. If this is an accurate reflection of Putin’s thinking, then it is highly doubtful that Obama can succeed in improving Russian-American relations. Even in the highly unlikely case that Washington and Moscow could resolve all their differences over Iran, Syria, and BMD, Putin still regards the very attempt by Obama to improve ties between Washington and Moscow as a ploy to undermine and, ultimately, overthrow him.
Mark N. Katz