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What to Expect at Putin-Obama Meeting

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 13, 2013

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Russian president Vladimir Putin and U.S. president Barack Obama will meet privately in Northern Ireland for the first time since they were both returned to office. The talks on the sidelines of the June 17-18 G8 summit are expected to be dominated by the Syrian crisis and efforts to advance bilateral arms issues, says CFR Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich. Absent any expected breakthroughs, he says, both sides will be aiming to set a new tone for the relationship. The Obama administration, he says, has been reluctant to criticize Russia for its human rights crackdowns, and "Putin is surely aware that he can use the lure of cooperation on issues like arms control and Syria to get the [Obama] administration to lower its rhetoric on domestic issues."

Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Courtesy Reuters)

Next week Russian president Vladimir Putin will meet with President Barack Obama for about an hour or so. Such meetings used to be big world news, but now they don't get that much attention. What do you think they'll be talking about?

This is a short meeting on the margins of the G8, and not all that much can probably be accomplished. A meeting of this kind is important primarily if there's some ongoing business that can be moved further down the field just a little bit. But it has some significance all the same, because it's the first encounter between Obama and Putin since Putin was reelected in March 2012 and Obama was reelected last November. So both sides are looking to it to set a tone for the relationship and to hint at the possibility at progress on some of the substance that matters to both sides.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Putin in Moscow last month. There was an agreement to hold a second Geneva conference on Syria, but right now it doesn't look very promising. The Russians are still aiding the Assad government, so what's the likelihood of any progress?

The Russians are unlikely to put a lot of pressure on Assad right now because his position has strengthened in the last month. They have criticized the European Union in the last month for their decision in principle to lift the arms embargo on support to the rebels. They've criticized the idea of U.S. support to the rebels, and it's quite possible that if either the EU or the United States decided to go forward, the Russians would trumpet this as the cause of the breakdown of diplomacy. So this idea is limping along right now. My feeling had been that the Russians were likely to move only if they saw a very clear and purposeful U.S. and European policy, and in the month since there was an agreement on this conference, Western policy has actually continued to be undefined and even confused.

The constant refrain ever since the Bush administration has been the missile defense issue. The Obama administration picked it up, and it still bothers the Russians immensely. Where do we stand on this?

This issue goes back much longer than the Bush administration. You have to go back to the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972. Really since Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called Star-Wars Initiative, U.S. missile defense plans have been a source of anxiety and grievance for the Russians. The Russians have complained about every plan that the United States has developed as a counter to small ballistic missile capabilities on the part of countries like Iran and North Korea. They've said that those missile defense projects threaten the Russians' own deterrent. And no matter how the United States adjusts the plans, the Russian military establishment finds some way to say that actually this is a threat to them. But it's not an urgent threat, and they know that these capabilities are not going to be put in place for years. So the complaining goes on, but the urgency to settle the matter is slight.

Right now what the United States is saying to them is we can find a way to cooperate on missile defense, which will gradually give you confidence that these capabilities do not involve any real threat to you. The Russians insist that they want a legally binding guarantee that that will be the case. The U.S. side counters that that's a nonstarter, particularly from the standpoint of congressional ratification. Recently the Obama administration proposed a new plan for strategic arms reductions, and there has been an exchange of letters on that front, but that project can't really go forward unless there is some meeting of minds on missile defense, or at least an agreement to disagree.

The Putin administration has cracked down on internal opposition. The Obama administration has been fairly quiet about these Russian crackdowns. Congress has been more outspoken with the passage of the so-called Magnitsky Act last year. Explain the discrepancy.

The Magnitsky Bill did involve a kind of strain, but you're right that the administration has not looked for opportunities to condemn the rollback of human rights and the rule of law and democratic protections. The administration seems uncertain about how to handle the internal politics of Russia. There seems to be a kind of unresolved debate about how much attention to give it, and I imagine they will continue to struggle with that for a while. Putin is surely aware that he can use the lure of cooperation on issues like arms control and Syria to get the administration to lower its rhetoric on domestic issues. But even apart from that, the administration is just plain divided on how much attention to give the issue.

What is your sense of Putin's popularity right now?

If you ask Russians, "Is Putin an ideal leader?" an increased number say, "Yes, he is." If you ask Russians if they want Putin to run again in 2018, a lower number says yes. So the polls tell a kind of mixed story, and that probably reflects the mixed views of the Russian public. It also reflects the politicized character of polling, which is one reason that the government has tried to rein in independent pollsters. There has been an offensive against the Levada Center, which is the most respected polling agency in Russia.

How is the Russian economy doing?

This is a source of great uncertainty for Putin, and I would say it is surely his main preoccupation right now. If Russia continues to head towards recession, Putin surely expects domestic criticism of his policies to mount. If he can right the ship, he probably figures he can ride out the current storm, and he is focusing on this; it's his principal preoccupation and he has elevated it as an issue of Russian-American relations. So among all the other issues that we've mentioned so far, I understand that Putin is saving some time to talk about progress on the economic front.

Does he want to increase trade?

Trade, investments, big investment projects are a source of considerable pride for Putin, and he is aware that foreign investment in Russia remains low--American investment in particular. So he has talked about the need to create conditions that will increase investment. The Americans have a pretty standard answer on that, which is: These are decisions that are made by independent actors who look at the investment climate, the rule of law, the nuisance value of operating in Russia, and have tended to be discouraged by what they see.

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