Nikolai Zlobin is the President and Founder of the Center on Global Interests in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
There is no need to worry about the cancellation of Obama-Putin meeting. First, it was not quite obvious to Americans why the two presidents should meet face to face. These meetings breed excessively high expectations because they are infrequent and always attract much interest. It was not clear what was to be negotiated; neither was there an effective and coordinated agenda. What interests Obama with regard to Russia is the anti-gender agenda that Moscow rejects. What interests Moscow is of no interest to America. Even if it were held, the meeting would be a waste of time, bringing in its wake even more disappointments at the quality of Russian-American relations.
Second, America believes that Putin is, as a rule, anti-American for the sake of being anti-American, even if Russia gains nothing from this policy. He still thinks it necessary to pique and embarrass America instead of offering support. There is a backlog of anger at Russian policies which Obama cannot afford to ignore.
Third, Obama is under heavy pressure from Republicans and others, who think that he has been too soft on Putin, as a result of which America was left without leverage when Snowden stepped on the stage. It is not that Russia is strong or rising from its knees. More likely it’s an American strategic miscalculation with regard to Russia. The United States proved unable to dominate Russian-American relations in order to have its way. Obama has to reckon with the moods in society and among the Republicans. In this sense, it was easier for him to cancel the meeting, especially as it was unlikely to bring any benefits to his country.
Fourth, there happened what always happens with US presidents, including George W. Bush and his predecessors, who at some point suddenly reversed their attitude to the Russian leader. The same thing has happened with Mr. Obama. The Snowden case was a turning point in a generally decent relationship.
The situation will become even more complicated if Snowden, as promised, hands over another installment of evidence of US spying to the media. The USA will regard this as a political move on the part of the Kremlin. Putin urged that Snowden put an end to his anti-American activity as the main condition for Russia to grant him provisional asylum. If Snowden persists, it is quite clear that this will be done in spite of Putin’s request.
The Americans are split fifty-fifty on Snowden, some welcoming his move, others denouncing it. For civil society he is a criminal, rather than political case. Many dislike the Russian position, namely the argument that there is no extradition agreement, which they view as a slim excuse.
Russia unexpectedly finds itself in a tricky situation. Snowden’s case is certainly too insignificant for the two presidents to buck, start a trial of strength, cancel visits, or trade barbs. Generally speaking, there were too many people with an axe to grind, who would like to make this clash of interests a part of Russian-American relations, which it originally was not, nor could ever be. The conflict was fanned and blown out of proportion. While currently both the Americans and Russians are nil-nil, the only obvious winner is China. China was attacked by the USA over its hacking. After Snowden’s revelations, it dramatically improved its stance vis-à-vis America which is now forced to talk to China in a totally different manner. The estimate regarding who involved whom and where should now proceed precisely from this.
Russian-American relations will remain empty and decorative. Discussion (over Syria or Iran, for example) will go ahead, of course, but Russian-American relations proper – whatever the presidents need to discuss right now – have not produced a single topic for the meeting.
Both countries’ foreign and defense ministers will have to discuss a number of regional conflicts at their 2+2 meeting. Even though these have no direct bearing on relations between Russia and the US, neither country can offer a good solution to the problems. It is too early for predictions on Iran, where a new president has been elected and who needs time to show his hand. There is a stalemate in Syria and we can only wait for further developments. A meeting will be useful, but it will not lead to any important decisions.