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Vladimir the Impaler

It’s official: President Obama showed President Vladimir Putin his tough side by canceling out of the bilateral summit in Moscow. In yet another of those carefully calibrated messages the “realists” in the White House commend themselves for sending, the leader of the Free World will not give Russia’s leader the benefit of His Grace one-on-one (oh, but he’ll still participate in the St. Petersburg G-20 summit).

What a bold move. Except for the fact that Putin has little to gain from a bilateral summit with the United States just now. What are the deliverables Russia could expect from a face to face? There are no policy issues ripe for agreement. Putin could expect to be harangued by Obama about Edward Snowden (we extradite criminals to you without a treaty), Syria (end your lucrative defense supplies and use your influence with Assad to create an outcome you don’t want and set a precedent you may suffer from), visa liberalization (not after Boston), gay rights (“I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them”), and nuclear reductions (a safer world is in all our interests even if it takes away your only military leverage). Who wouldn’t want to skip out on that meeting?

Putin may well benefit from discomfiting the American president, but he achieved that only weeks ago at their bilateral meeting in Ireland, where news stories carried pictures of tense, dissatisfied expressions and stories of stalemate, and in the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. No need to stoke those embers again so soon, especially if Obama might step on Putin’s preferred story line that by granting asylum he’s preventing Snowden from revealing damaging information about the United States. Putin might like to play up supposed American hypocrisy, but you can’t fault his understanding of realism: the man has an unapologetic insistence that goals come before morals.

There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia’s authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest – the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies – in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy). Realists would never make that trade. In classic liberal fashion, Obama is constraining American power by rules and norms to which all states could be subjected.

The reason President Obama’s Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal. It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests. All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.

Why has Russia policy gone so wrong? Not for lack of effort or desire for a fresh start. The Obama administration rightly set out in 2008 to refashion U.S.-Russian relations, which were in a dismal state after years of mutual disappointment and creeping authoritarianism in Moscow. One of the benefits of changes in government is a routine reevaluation of policies and the sense of a new beginning. President Bill Clinton tried to build a solid partnership with President Boris Yeltsin. President George W. Bush, too, took his chance, saying after his first early meeting with Russia’s leader that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and could see his soul.

The Obama administration put talent on the team for this problem: Mike McFaul is both a serious scholar of Russia and an ardent advocate of democratization who, before joining the Obama campaign, had run an important study of the opportunity cost to the Russian economy of Putin’s governance. In showing quantitatively the ways authoritarian policies inhibited economic growth, the study up-ended Putin’s argument that his policies were responsible for increased Russian prosperity.

But, of course, McFaul is a poor choice of adviser to the president and plenipotentiary to Moscow if getting along with Putin’s Russia is the administration’s aim. If realists were actually in control of Obama policies, he wouldn’t have been nominated. Belief that our values are universal – that all people deserve and yearn for freedom – and can take root even in the Russian tundra would have been disqualifying. No amount of private correspondence and former national security adviser Tom Donilon’s shuttle diplomacy makes up for it.

Liberals are ignoring an important reality about Putin’s Russia, which is that he has the consent of the majority of Russian people. According to a Pew poll, 56 percent of Russians report themselves satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election that swapped Medvedev and Putin. Seventy-two percent of Russians support Putin and his policies, a level of public endorsement Obama can only dream of. Fifty-seven percent of Russians consider a strong leader more important than democracy; a 25 percent margin over those who believe democracy is essential. And by a margin of 75 percent to 19 percent, Russians consider a strong economy more important than democracy.

Much as we might hope Russian reformers force progress, American policies need to acknowledge that Russians are mostly satisfied with the governance they have (and thus get the one they deserve). The Pew polling indicates that economic growth and social mobility are the bases of Putin’s public support. And unless Washington can craft policies that affect those variables, it ought not expect the Putin government to be responsive to our appeals.

The Obama White House likes to think of itself as full of foreign policy realists. But realism, as it exists in international relations theory, has three main tenets: 1) power calculations as the metric of importance in understanding state behavior; 2) willingness to discard policies that are not advancing one’s interests; and 3) the willingness to use one’s advantages to threaten and enforce preferences on other states. For all their pretensions to realism, the Obama administration does none of these three things well.

The White House has been willing to sacrifice some U.S. interests and allies for the cause of U.S.-Russia comity. It refuses to intervene in Syria or anywhere else without a United Nations Security Council resolution. It canceled the anti-ballistic missile deployments to Europe that NATO had agreed to. And it has prioritized issues to some extent, placing cooperation on Iran sanctions above European missile defenses and continuing to pull Georgia westward. But the administration has allowed lesser events like Libya, where we were duplicitous in gaining Russian consent for U.N. action, and half-hearted endorsement of congressional activism on the Magnitsky Act to foster Russian resentment.

Moreover, the compromises the Obama White House has made are consistent with the administration’s overall policy preferences: avoiding foreign interventions wherever possible, and putting “diplomacy” before security on missile defense. But a better test of realism is when it requires compromising core tenets of either principle or policy. Handing over Syria’s rebel leadership so Assad can consolidate his grip and “end the human suffering” of that civil war would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side, agreeing to write off Georgia’s western aspirations for Moscow allowing a U.N. intervention in Syria would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side of the flip side, arming Caucasian separatists to aggravate Russia’s security problems would be a realist move.

Putin has an economy seemingly incapable of diversification, dependent on high oil prices and current demand levels. And, like China, it has a public that’s politically quiescent as long as standards of living are rising fast. But these are major weaknesses that Washington either doesn’t want to seize upon, or doesn’t have the ingenuity to figure out how to affect. Add to these the debilitating brain drain of technologists and creative types, business practices that are unlawful and predatory, and a foreign policy that’s seen – not just by the United States – as bad guys keeping bad guys in power, and you have a choice of levers.

Instead of a Nixonian ruthlessness that presses our advantages or identifies common interests and sells off issues (and allies) of lesser importance to achieve them, the Obama administration has become a continuation of the Bush administration in Russia policy: a bossy liberal, condescendingly explaining to Moscow that if only they understood their true interests as we understand their true interests, they would adopt our policies.

But Putin has already made his own pivot, disavowing the values on which “Western” (by which is meant free) societies are based, and the Russia people are willing to permit it. President Obama may think he’s sent a tough message to Putin that actions have consequences, and that keeping Snowden means a cold shoulder – but when it comes to playing the realist chess game, he’s got a lot to learn from grandmaster in Moscow.

(Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.)

Remember when Russians used to defect to the US?

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