Russia Watch: Why will Obama visit Russia for a Putin summit?

Why is Barack Obama planning to be in Moscow in early September for a two-day summit with Vladimir Putin?

Mystery to me.

Thursday’s conviction and sentencing Alexei Navalny make the Putin government increasingly look like a South American military dictatorship from the 1970s. And you can be sure that American presidents, especially Democratic ones, did not do photo ops with likes of Chile’s President Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In year XIV of Putinism, opposition politicians go to jail, pro-government governors rule all the regions, and votes in the Duma like the old unanimous hand raising drills in the Supreme Soviet. The Russian state tightly controls television, police intimidate protesters and prosecutors close down human rights groups and other NGOs.

Sounds a lot like Brazil 1972, Chile 1976 and Argentina 1979. During that era, American presidents generally kept the generals at arm’s length. Even when they wore business suits, like Mr. Putin.

In the realpolitik of today’s world, Putin needs Obama more than Obama needs Putin.

The planned Moscow summit Sept. 3-4 will boost Putin’s prestige at home and abroad. For Obama, it could turn out to be red meat for the Republicans.

The last 24 hours have seen Republicans in Washington:
 assail the jailing of Navalny, the leading opposition politician of Russia’s post-Soviet generation
 one Senator, Lindsey Graham, saying the U.S. should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics if Russia grants asylum to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Indeed, for the last month, the Putin government has been harboring Snowden, the individual who has delivered the biggest blow in recent years to the images of the United States and of President Obama.

Of course, President Putin tries to have it both ways – keeping Snowden under control of government agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, but then saying the fugitive American intelligence expert is an unwanted visitor.

Putin asks Snowden not to attack “our American partners.” But Russia’s leader does not send Snowden on his way — either in the custody of a U.S. Federal Marshall on the next Aeroflot to Washington, or in the back of a Russian Bear bomber to Caracas.

Snowden’s Kremlin-friendly asylum lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, reported Wednesday that his client promises to stop “harming our U.S. partners.” The lawyer added: “I believe we should trust him. Naturally, we can’t sign any document with him to that effect.”

Hmm, he might ask the National Security Administration how well Snowden keeps a promise.

What would be the deliverables of the Putin – Obama summit?

So far, it looks like two days of meetings for the sake of meetings.

On Syria, the Kremlin greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks initiative by dispatching ship-sinking and aircraft-downing missiles to Syria. Russian military aid seems to be tipping the balance in Syria’s civil war, pushing peace talks further and further down the road.

On President Obama’s nuclear arms cuts proposal, the Kremlin poked so many holes in the idea that it seems to be a non-starter.

Both countries generally see eye to eye on controlling nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea. But both these countries border Russia – North Korea by land and Iran by sea. Given this geography, Russia has a real interest in curbing nuclear weapons in its neighborhood.

Then there is the famous personal presidential chemistry that historically can bubble up during a summit.

But it should be clear by now that the chemistry between the two leaders has been bad.

Whenever the two presidents meet, Putin looks bored or uncomfortable.

At the G-8 summit in Camp David last year, the Russian president stood up the American host by pulling out at the last minute, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. The next month, at the G-20 meeting in Mexico, the Russian leader showed up half an hour late for his meeting with Obama.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Vladivostok, Putin timed the meeting so the American president could not come. It was in early September, during the final stretch of the American presidential campaign.

So it is not as if Obama feels he should go to Moscow to repay a fistful of social IOUs to Vladimir Putin.

And there are the great intangibles: the symbolism and responsibility that comes with leading the world’s most powerful democracy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this responsibility prompted most American presidents to keep South America’s military leaders at a distance.

If President Obama is starting to think legacy in his second term, here is a vision to ponder.

Twenty years from now, Vladimir Putin, age 80, could be looking like Hosni Mubarak.

Twenty years from now, Alexei Navalny, age 57, could be the next president of Russia.

The turn of generational wheels can cause surprises.




James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.