Putin and Obama in St. Petersburg

by David Satter

President Obama has every reason to be concerned about the attitude of Russia but he needs to avoid any special outreach to Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit which opens tomorrow in St. Petersburg.

Obama wisely cancelled his scheduled separate meeting with Putin in Moscow before the summit and it would be counter-productive now to attempt to find common ground with Putin at the summit itself.

When announcing Russia’s willingness to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Putin stipulated that Snowden would have to stop releasing information from stolen NSA documents and hurting “our American partners.” Snowden was granted asylum but the publications based on NSA documents continue, the most recent being the news that the NSA had been spying on the leaders of Argentine and Brazil.

Having done his part in facilitating a damaging blow to America’s intelligence, Putin is now disputing the conclusion of the U.S. and others that it was the government of Syria that launched the recent attack with chemical weapons. As Syria’s principal foreign backer, Russia is presumed to have better sources in the Syrian government than anyone else. If the chemical-weapons attack in Syria was launched by the rebels, the Russians are well placed to prove it. At least in public, they have offered no evidence that the attack was carried out by anyone other than the Assad regime.

U.S. presidents always feel that they can charm Russian leaders. Putin’s recent actions make clear how little such an attitude can achieve. The best that Obama can do at the summit is to keep Putin at arm’s length and deal with other business. Anything else will be interpreted as weakness by Putin and by the Russian audience that will be watching his every move. 

— David Satter is an adviser to Radio Liberty and fellow at the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale).

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