Why Putin can't be forced to deal

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

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.

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?

Mark N. Katz

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.

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.

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Rocky relationship for Obama, Putin

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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

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