Skip to main content

Why Putin can't be forced to deal

By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN
updated 9:47 AM EDT, Tue June 19, 2012
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Barack Obama on Monday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Mexico.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Barack Obama on Monday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Mexico.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Katz: Obama and Putin said they'd cooperate but didn't say how they would
  • He says Obama appeared to want to befriend Putin at G-20, but Putin was stiff and reserved
  • He says if U.S. won't accommodate Russia, Russia won't accommodate U.S.
  • Katz: Russia thinks U.S. mistaken on Syria and regime's ouster will bring worse carnage

Editor's note: Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He is the author of "Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow his blog.

(CNN) -- At the Group of 20 summit in Mexico, President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had their first face-to-face meeting since Putin resumed the Russian presidency in May. The joint statement they issued afterward indicated several issues (including Iran and Syria) that the two sides would seek to cooperate on, but it did not announce any significant agreements to do so.

More telling were the visual images when the two presidents were together; Obama appeared to be doing his best to project an image of warmth and friendliness, while Putin was stiff and reserved, as he usually is with other world leaders. It appeared that Obama was earnestly seeking to befriend Putin, but Putin was not reciprocating.

Why would Putin behave this way? It may be because, unlike Obama, he may not be looking for opportunities to cooperate, nor be embarrassed about forgoing them. He appears to have a much more transactional approach to foreign policy, running something like this: Washington wants Moscow to adopt the American approach to Iran and Syria and several other issues. But it is unwilling to make concessions to Moscow to get it.

Mark N. Katz
Mark N. Katz

Two such concessions would be abandoning ballistic-missile defense plans that Moscow finds threatening and repealing the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment that continues to limit Russian-American trade. But much to Moscow's frustration, Washington is either unwilling or unable to accommodate Russia. So why should Russia accommodate America?

News: Obama and Putin discuss Syria, other topics during two-hour talk

The Obama administration would undoubtedly respond that surely Putin does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and thus should fully cooperate with the international effort to prevent this. And as Benjamin Rhodes, Obama's director for strategic communications at the National Security Council, was quoted as saying Monday about Syria, "We've been working to get the Russians to come in line with, frankly, the broad international community. This is not just an issue between the United States and Russia." Surely Russia would not want to defy the "broad international community" on Syria.

Lack of progress on Syria
Rocky relationship for Obama, Putin
Putin, Obama share laugh at G-20

Especially when it comes to Syria though, Putin and the Russian foreign policy establishment believe that America and the "broad international community" have missed the point. As bad as Bashar al-Assad's regime may be, Russia believes its downfall will be far worse for everyone, and not just Russia.

The Russians believe the most likely consequence would be the rise of a radical Sunni regime or a drawn-out civil war. Either way, far more people will be killed. Nor does Moscow see increasing sanctions -- much less the use of force -- as being effective in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Moscow doesn't see itself as willfully and wrongly defying "the broad international community." It genuinely believes that America and its Western allies are pursuing misguided policies toward Syria and Iran. For Obama to think he can get Moscow to adopt the American approach without compensation is simply an insult to Putin.

The Obama administration needs to understand that America cannot have its borscht and eat it, too. If it wants Russia's cooperation on Syria and Iran, it is going to have to make significant concessions to Moscow on other issues. Washington must now decide whether the cooperation it wants from Russia is really worth that.

Syria exposes cool spots in U.S.-Russia ties

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark N. Katz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT