Talking to Putin (or Not)

by Andrew Stuttaford

Over at The New Republic, Julia Ioffe is very, very angry (some bad words) with Lawrence O’Donnell after an appearance on his MSNBC show that didn’t work out so well.

That fight is what it is, but this comment by Ioffe is well worth noting:

You can’t back Putin into a corner and leave him no options. If you are a world leader worth your salt, and have a good diplomatic team working for you, you would know that. You would also know that when dealing with thugs like Putin, you know that things like this are better handled quietly. Here’s the thing: Putin responds to shows of strength, but only if he has room to maneuver. You can’t publicly shame him into doing something, it’s not going to get a good response. Just like it would not get a good response out of Obama.

Ioffe adds, however, that Obama was “very wise” to cancel his Moscow visit, and refers to an earlier piece in which she wrote:

And for all the Kremlin’s pouting, there’s also a consensus in Moscow that, well, there’s not much left to talk about. “Obviously, Obama just can’t come to Moscow with Snowden there, but they made clear they’re not totally shuttering the relationship,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a voice that, traditionally, is not far from the Kremlin’s line. “Okay, well now, the score is now 1-1, but the other problem is that the relationship has no content now. Even if Obama came to Moscow, it’s not really clear what they’d talk about.” Lukyanov, who wrote exactly this almost an entire month ago, elaborates: “No one is prepared to discuss a new agenda”—Asia, who gets what in the Arctic—”and the old one is totally exhausted.”

In other words, the Russians aren’t mad, really. They know, as the Americans know, that they’ve reached a dead end of sorts, a cul-de-sac. The question now is, how do they get out of it? And, then where do they go, and how? Given that both governments have other priorities at the moment, and that both have realized that they don’t really need each other, it seems the answers to those questions won’t become apparent for a while.

True enough, but then the mistake was to have scheduled the trip in the first place. Cancelling it was an entirely different decision, and not, I reckon, a wise one, mainly, ironically, for the reason that Ioffe gives in the second piece: pushing Putin into a corner doesn’t achieve very much, and, I’d add, could be counter-productive. And count me skeptical that a cancellation amounts to a show of strength.

Yes, the meeting would have been an empty and pointless charade, but so what?  That’s what most diplomacy is.  Welcome to the game.

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