Perhaps the omens were clear from the start. Regardless, it is now evident that President Obama’s attempted détente with Putin’s Russia has been a dismal failure.
In both Russia’s international and domestic actions, while cloaking himself in the false visage of an enlightened strong man, Putin has engaged in a brutal pursuit of power.
This week, Alexey Navalny, a leading Russian anti-corruption campaigner, was arrested and charged with embezzlement. While embezzlement is the excuse given by Russian authorities, it seems likely that Navalny is guilty of little more than angering Putin. Over the years, Navalny has been jailed several times (albeit for short terms) for his role in protests against the un-democratic practices of the Russian government. Now Putin appears to have decided to adopt a more permanent solution.
Alongside Navalny, three women went on trial in Moscow this week for an unlawful protest in a church. Unsurprisingly, Putin was the subject of this protest as well. Once again, Putin didn’t find it funny.
Sadly, these are far from the only examples of Putin’s distaste for criticism. Many journalists critical of Putin’s rule have found themselves in far worse positions than Navalny. The fate of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most widely known case. The ongoing detention of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky is also troubling. Though it’s unclear whether Putin had a direct hand in these incidents, by failing to take steps to address them, the Russian president has behaved with an abiding disdain for the democratic rule of law.
Putin has engaged in a similarly aggressive fashion in his conduct of Russian foreign affairs. While Putin’s invasion of Georgia only ended when President Bush sent U.S. military transports to deliver humanitarian relief to the Georgian government, President Obama has sought a different and far more subdued relationship with Putin. Since unilaterally granting Russian wishes on Bush’s missile defense system, Obama has failed to note any significant dissatisfaction with Russian foreign policies that fundamentally oppose U.S. interests. Indeed, in the wake of Putin’s recent re-election, Obama “quietly” offered the Russian government more concessions, even though Russia continues to support Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear ambitions. This is a troubling dynamic that feeds Putin’s ego, degrades America’s image and damages our national interests. In Obama’s silence, Putin has been unleashed.
Perhaps more poignant is the current example of Syria. Most of the international community is seeking an end to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, but Putin has spared no effort to provide a diplomatic defense of Assad at the U.N., while simultaneously facilitating the dictator’s campaign of destruction inside Syria. For Putin, it’s business before peace.
On issues ranging from free speech to war, Putin’s Russia has openly — sometimes even gleefully — rejected Obama’s efforts toward détente. It is far past time for Obama to adopt a new approach with Putin. He should openly condemn Russia’s current policies, while being willing, if necessary, to take stronger steps to oppose them. Such steps could include suspending U.S.-Russia nuclear negotiations, sanctioning Russian companies that do business with Syria and Iran and increasing U.S. support for Russia’s Eastern European neighbors.
A deep, lasting friendship with the people of Russia is in all our interests, but seeking the friendship of a man who actively undermines our interests is not just a mistake, but also a profound strategic error.
Ultimately, Obama must help Putin understand that détente is a prize born of substantive process and not a reward born of intimidation.
Tom Rogan is an American blogger and writer currently studying in London, England. He holds a BA in War Studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. His blog can be found at TomRoganThinks.com.