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So the rumors were true: The White House is canceling a planned summit with Vladimir Putin on the margins of the upcoming G-20 heads of state meeting, slated for September.
This is a mistake.
Of the three options available to him, President Obama chose the middle one. And while seemingly a step in the right direction, it gets him the least bang for his buck.
Option one was not to attend the G-20 session. The message would have been stark and unmistakable: Russia’s hosting the group’s summit after a year and a half of a relentless and merciless assault on civil society and non-violent political opposition following Putin’s election in March 2012 is unacceptable to the world’s leading industrial democracy.
On the opposite end of the tactical spectrum was the option of having a summit with Putin in order to underscore the differences, starting with the body language (remember Obama’s first meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?) and ending up with a press conference at which Obama could have hinted at the substance of his “frank” talk with Putin and criticized Russia’s human rights record in front of the world. (And don’t underestimate the effect of an American president, finally, telling the Russian autocrat face to face what he thinks of his crackdown.)
Both of these options would have served an immediate political, rather than purely symbolic, purpose. As it is for most authoritarians in the “Third World” or “emerging markets,” Putin’s anti-Americanism is often less about policy issues (he has all but begged the United States not to leave Afghanistan) than it is about boosting his domestic popularity, which as steadily sagging under the weight of economic slowdown, rising prices for staples and utilities, widespread dissatisfaction with housing availability, steadily deteriorating health care and education, and, of course, the ubiquitous, near-paralyzing corruption.
Yet Putin’s game is not that simple. No matter what the Kremlin’s propaganda blares about before the meeting, hosting a meeting attended by a U.S. president is a key domestic and foreign legitimizing device. It says to the Russian people: No matter what we do domestically, the regime is still respected enough by the only country that matters to us. The state-owned television channels where most Russians get their news are not going to delve into diplomatic intricacies. Here’s Obama attending the G-20 meeting, and here’s its host, Putin, smiling – and smiled back at in return. All’s fine, then.
Thus the White House’s generally correct message — Russian domestic behavior is now not without costs for U.S.-Russian relations — is likely to be wasted on the Russian people and the world audience alike. Better not go to Russia at all, or go and let the Russians and world hear from Barack Obama, rather than Jay Carney, what America thinks, denying Putin the political boost he so avidly seeks.
Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, Spring 2012)
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