Obama and Putin Take the Measure of Each Other at the G-20 in Los Cabos: What Next?

The Russian leadership will have to decide where the U.S. fits into the foreign policy priorities of the Russian Federation and whether an anti-American strategy at home is compatible with a productive bilateral relationship on the world stage.

The joint press conference at the end of the meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on June 18th, said it all: not much was lost by Putin skipping the May meeting in the United States and the priority topics on Obama’s list hadn’t changed much. Substantive differences on the “big” issues – Syria and missile defense – were not resolved, although few had expected that they would be. What was perhaps most surprising, however, was the way the White House press pool described the personal chemistry between the two men at the end of the meeting: "Messrs. Obama and Putin remained seated at the end. Their interpreters stepped away, and they just stared straight ahead. No interacting or chit-chatting."

Analysts of U.S.-Russian relations have often cautioned that leaders put too much emphasis on personality in their dealings with each other. In the 1990s, at the Clinton-Yeltsin summits, “Boris and Bill” apparently got along quite well, especially at the beginning of their relationship, and we have just seen a remarkably productive three years due in part to the meeting of minds between Presidents Obama and Medvedev. At the Obama-Putin meeting, this personal contact, let alone personal warmth was missing. Part of this may be differences in personalities, but certainly not all of it. Over the long term, a “businesslike and cordial” exchange of views can only take you so far – without establishing a comfort zone and a certain level of trust, it is impossible to make progress on really contentious issues.

During his first month in office, the Russian President has been in constant motion, visiting one country after another, talking to other world leaders in both bilateral and multilateral fora. Why was the only visit that required postponement – because “he had to be in Moscow” – the one with the American President? Does President Putin know all he has to know about U.S. global objectives and perhaps believe that an America so absorbed in its own presidential campaign cannot promise, or deliver, much for at least the next six months? (For whatever it’s worth, Mr. Putin seemed much more engaged in answering the questions posed by the members of the Valdai Club last Fall in Moscow than in speaking to the U.S. President….)

During the past year, President Obama has had to deal with a series of world crises – including rocky political transformations in the Middle East and a European economic meltdown that threatens to take the U.S. economy with it. Has the reset with Russia run its course or is there simply too much on the President’s plate to make Russia a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy?

The meeting in Los Cabos turned out to be a holding action, not a time for making deals or big-picture decisions. Even though neither side wants a return to poor relations or to confrontation, neither sees much upside in making the first move, much less any major concessions. In the meantime, Russia seems to have found a new “best friend” in China and become a cheerleader for G-20 global economic leadership. (The basis for common ground with China may have less substance than the hype would suggest, but certainly the recent visit of President Putin to China was treated as a major event.)

The United States and Russia will continue to work together on key international issues, including ensuring that the military supply routes to Afghanistan remain open and restraining Iran’s nuclear development, as well as other issues involving proliferation. Russia’s entry into the WTO opens another vista for an expansion of bilateral relations, although here there is not much the U.S. Government can do to spur U.S. investment in Russia (other than extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations [PNTR]), while the goal of the Russian Government should be to get out of the business of managing the Russian economy.

Ultimately, the Russian leadership will have to decide where the U.S. fits into the foreign policy priorities of the Russian Federation and whether an anti-American strategy at home is compatible with a productive bilateral relationship on the world stage. That's the number one priority. Clearly, to be a major player on the world scene means engaging with the U.S. continuously and at a very high level, starting with the President but extending to our extraordinarily talented Ambassador in Moscow. To create the kind of competitive economy the Russian leadership says it wants, Russia has to lower the political risk of investing, as well as to seriously fight corruption and address the concerns of an increasingly politically active middle class. Ernst & Young reports that foreign investors remain wary of Russia because of its non-transparent policies and the most recent World Bank survey on “Doing Business in Russia” indicates that, although certain economic indicators have improved, Russia still does not rank as a top destination for global investment.

The Obama Administration has said that it wants to work with President Putin – and, indeed, the political reality is that it has been working with him at a distance all during the Medvedev presidency. Now it will have to deal with him directly, which presents opportunities as well as challenges. The Russians will not follow the U.S. lead unless it is clear where U.S. policy is headed and Russian interests are taken into account, but it is also true that to be the kind of international player Russia wants to be carries certain obligations, including how it treats protesters on the streets of Moscow and other major cities and respect for civil society. Like it or not, this strongly impacts perceptions of Russia in the U.S.

When the status quo is in neither country's interests or increasingly untenable, there will be opportunities to put aside competitive interests and work together. The U.S. wants a political transition in Syria, while Russia, more than anything else, wants political stability. The U.S. and its European allies face huge uncertainties in managing the Eurozone crisis and global economic uncertainties, but the Russian economy is far from immune if any new downturn is severe and protracted. However, agreement that “something needs to be done” does not tell you what should be done. Getting to that point – on Syria, on Iran, on management of the global economy – will require constant communication and, yes, some degree of trust.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.