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Of Russian resets and NSA leaks

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In 2001 President Bush met Vladimir Putin at a summit in Slovenia. They met to discuss post-Soviet debt, among other things, but Bush saw their initial meeting as a chance to form a strong relationship with a key player in global politics. According to Decision Points, Putin was rough around the edges, but softened up when W. inquired about a cross that Putin had had blessed in Jerusalem. It was the sentimental story of Putin’s cross and this shared moment that had led Bush to suggest that he had looked into Putin’s soul. But if he really had, he would not have been so impressed.

President Obama definitely isn’t. Last Wednesday, Obama canceled a trip to Russia in part due to an act of diplomatic sabotage in which Putin granted asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The fact that Putin allowed the asylum, was met with some disgust, but shouldn’t have been met with much surprise.

In 2001, President Bush’s first impression of Putin appeared to be an accurate one. Putin was the first leader to call the White House after the September 11th attacks. He made a quick and thoughtful promise to stand down as the U.S. went to DEFCON 3. Within the same year, Putin opened Russian airspace to the U.S. Military, helped to secure supply routes to Afghanistan through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and even allowed Russian generals to brief American officers on the perils of an Afghan battlefront.

As time went on, Vladimir Putin became more and more powerful within his own country. And soon, he succumbed to the obstructionist world view held by the former Soviet bureaucrats. One of the first significant acts of American defiance by Putin was Russia’s block on the Security Council for more sanctions on Iraq. Russia had lucrative oil contracts with Iraq and seemed just fine with either Sadam Hussein in power, or the U.S. and Great Britain bogged down. He used Russian energy leverage to exploit and extort former Eastern Bloc countries.  Inside Russia, he jailed dissidents, and cracked down on free press.

Relations between Bush and Putin reached a low point when, in 2008, Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia. Yet, President Bush was still able to convince Putin to leave Georgia. I think in small part because the United States still had a measure of leverage over the Russian Federation. In Bush’s second term he launched a defense project which would put a missile a defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This system would have provided to be the most substantial anti-ballistic measure the world had ever seen. Not only that, but it would have been the first step in what would likely become the next frontier of international defense. Russia and Putin were highly uncomfortable with a U.S. anti-ballistic system so close. They were also highly uncomfortable with President Bush’s relationship with former Eastern Bloc countries, and his propensity to support their inclusion into the world’s most powerful alliances. Maybe this discomfort was enough to keep Putin from straying too far from his diplomatic responsibilities.

In 2009 Hillary Clinton met with the Russian foreign minister, and declared a reset on U.S. – Russian relations. She ceremoniously and metaphorically presented the foreign minister with a reset button. The entire scene was embarrassing. Not only was it cheesy, but it sent the Russians a message that it was Bush’s fault for cracking down on human rights, supporting  democratic societies in Eastern Europe, developing a defense shield for Europe and North America, and holding Russia to its word. And not Russia’s fault for doing everything else nefarious that THEY had done. However, just like the cross moment, the reset button moment seemed to work too – for a short time.

In the beginning of Obama’s first term there seemed to be a new harmony with Russia and Putin. The United States got Russia into the World Trade Organization, while Russia put harsh sanctions on Iran, recommitted to the logistical support of supplies into Afghanistan, and signed the New Start nuclear arms treaty. But since Putin has regained most of the power he had lost when he left to become prime minister, he has reverted back to the corrupt and obstructionist autocrat that we saw at the end of the Bush administration. Probably even worse so. In the last few years Russia has supported anti-U.S. regimes in Syria and Venezuela, blocked resolutions and opposed sanctions with Iran, and fed anti-American movements within Russia.

Probably the most despicable act of anti-American sentiment was the prohibition of American adoptions in Russia. Putin complied with the nonsensical emotions in Russia that the U.S. is still a rival and threat to Russia, thus compromising the wellbeing of thousands of children born to poverty. The most significant and still threating act of defiance by Putin has been his arming of the Assad regime in Syria. And the most openly humiliating act is now the Snowden issue.

The asylum of Snowden is more than just an insult, it is a real threat. Snowden has documents in his possession that reveal in part the infrastructure of the NSA, and how U.S. intelligence operates. This information, though not published, could ultimately be used against us. Maybe that is Putin’s real motive for Snowden’s asylum. He thinks he can get even more intel out of him. That is why I don’t understand the people who see Snowden as some sort of hero. We can debate about whether or not the NSA has too much access to our information, but if the American people were Snowden’s genuine concern, he would have used other avenues within the government to expose the programs, without compromising huge amounts of NSA data to foreign hosts. He wasn’t crusading. He was being overzealous and anti-establishmentarian. He is no better than Julian Assange, who sees the U.S. as some sort of evil empire, while sympathizing with global miscreants and thugs in Russia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Though Obama cancelled his meeting with Putin, it is unclear if he will do anything else to send a message to Russia, to bring in Snowden, or to regain some sort of leverage with Russia. He will go to the G-20 in Russia next month, and he will not boycott the Olympics this coming winter. I agree with both decisions. However, the Snowden thing is not insignificant, and neither is the need for Russia to respect our concerns. Former UN ambassador John Bolton suggests reviving the anti-ballistic missile system in Poland to effect our leverage. I agree. The program is a great idea and should have never been canceled in the first place. Playing nice has brought us nothing.

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4 Responses to “Of Russian resets and NSA leaks”

  1. Almost everything Putin does is easily explicable as: following Russian interests, mixed with resentment and a concern about maintaining face. Morals, ethics etc don’t come into it. It is classic great power politics, of the sort that most major European powers & the US have always pursued. In the 80s for example, the US armed a bunch of crazy jihadis in Afghanistan to undermine the USSR. It had little to do with freedom because Afghanistan is a worse place to live now than it was as a Soviet proxy. American interests are one thing, Russian interests are another, end of story.

    EG: Why would Putin back fighters against Assad, when he would lose a warm water port and reveal himself to be an untrustworthy partner to all the other unsavory players in the ME he does business with? Also: lots of those people are crazy jihadis and there is no guarantee Syria will be a better place to live without Assad. For most ethnic and religious minorities, it will surely be worse. There’s also an element of tit for tat in this as Russia voted for the air raids on Gaddafi to stop a massacre, and the raids (it was was explicitly stated) were not about regime change. Regime change then went ahead. The US & EU lied to Putin, he felt cheated and humiliated, and so the next time the opportunity arose, he blocked US and EU efforts at Arab regime change. No surprise there.

    Why would he allow Saakashvili to launch an assault on South Ossetia when that state contained many Russian citizens? Of course, he had been handing out passports to Ossetians to undermine Saakashvili, but Saak was completely insane to attack an enclave stuffed full of Russian citizens that Russia had pledged support for. The results were obvious, and if it was a trap then it was the easiest trap ever laid and Saak walked right into it. I suspect Saak hoped he could draw the US into the fight, so he could restore borders that had been drawn up by Stalin. It was a colossal miscalculation, and he is a fool.

    Ukrainian gas shenanigans are very complex; Ukraine received a favorable rate, much cheaper than market prices when it was friendly to Russia. Effectively, Russia subsidized the Ukrainian economy. The rate shot up to the same rate everybody else paid when Ukraine adopted an anti-Russian, pro-European/pro-UN policy. No surprise there.

    As for Snowden, why would Putin hand him back? He’d look like a fool in front of his own countrymen who are much more anti-American than he is; and nobody would ever come to Russia offering confidential information ever again. It would be a colossal miscalculation. What would America offer in return? Thanks?

    Putin has made the calculation that his vital interests will not be affected by this type of thing, and he has observed that he usually wins, and in that he is correct. So he carries on.

  2. Also, undermining America is just good for business. By continually doing so, he advertises himself as the go to dude with weapons and technology for America’s foes. Note, also that the US arms many unsavory regimes, Saudi Arabia being one of them. And there are many others:


    It’s a classic case of our bastards vs. his bastards. Putin wants to snap up the other bastards.

  3. The U.S. arms a handful of strategic countries that have human rights issues, none of which who are actively involved in an all out civil war with the indiscriminate killing of civilian populations on the scale that Assad is. Furthermore, the U.S. arming of foreign regimes are existing relationships. The Russian support for Syria has increased as a result of Assad’s actions. The moral equivalency here is oblique.

    And undermining America is not good for business. The U.S. is Russia’s 5th biggest trading partner, has an economy 8 times bigger, spends 10 times more in defense, and is a strong ally with almost every country that borders Russia in Eastern Europe, Caucasia, and half the countries in Turkestan. That is, unless America does nothing to use its leverage. Which seems like the case the last few years.

  4. The US has armed all kinds of dodgy geezers, e.g. Saddam, the Afghan Mujahideen, and so on. Some of those weapons were used for large scale slaughter. Not right now, thankfully, but I wouldn’t describe Saudi Arabia’s immense repression as a “human rights issue”- it’s one of the most intolerant societies on earth. They treat women, gays, Shiites, secularists and migrant workers abysmally. They are very, very, very extreme and ultra-reactionary and they bankroll all kinds of reactionary nonsense overseas. Iran is more enlightened than Saudi Arabia, they actually allow women to go to university and have minorities in their parliament. The other Middle Eastern autocracies the US arms are also pretty bad. So the US does it for strategic purposes, so does Putin. Putin wants to maintain his influence in the region, it’s very simple.

    Don’t get me wrong, the US does have higher standards than Russia when it comes to arming thugs, but when push comes to shove I don’t think morals come into this very much for any country, just what you can get away with. There’s much more public scrutiny of what the US govt does, so if Obama did suddenly decide he really wanted to arm Burma, then he’d have to answer questions that Putin wouldn’t need to bother with. These are the benefits for us of an open society that Russians do not enjoy. But if there was a war on and the US really, really wanted one nasty bastard to win over another nasty bastard, then I think they’d arm the nasty bastard. It’s been done before.

    And if all this was bad for business, Putin would stop doing it. For instance, the US expansion into Eastern Europe that you mentioned is bad for Russian business, since once a country joins NATO it has to replace all its weaponry with NATO-produced weaponry. Big bucks for the US, huge losses for Russia, very annoying for Putin, never mind the national security issues. So he arms the other guys instead. As for Central Asia and the Caucasus, Putin does massive business over there too, and doesn’t deliver lectures about human rights. He’s in it for the long game- Russia will always be there, America blows hot and cold- he knows it, and they know it.

    And- most remarkably of all- no matter how obstructive to US interests Putin gets, the Pentagon still spends hundreds of millions of dollars on helicopters to be purchased from Russia’s state arms dealer!


    Look at it from Putin’s perspective- “I do X, Y, & Z and they still give me everything i want! Unbelievable! What a bunch of saps.”

    Which, however, brings us to the point you make that I agree with absolutely: yes, Obama really is utterly, utterly hopeless at using leverage.

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