Obama will have hands full with prickly Putin at G20 summit

President Obama will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit Monday. Putin has already shown that he's in no mood to kowtow to the US.

Sergei Chirikov/AP/File
The alliance between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (l.) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (both shown here in a file photo) has been a stumbling block for US-Russia relations in recent months.

US-Russia relations have deteriorated since the days of President Obama’s “reset” with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev – the most recent sign of a refreeze being last week’s dust-up between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s material support for Syrian strong man Bashar al-Assad.

But when Mr. Obama sits down Monday with the once-and-once-again Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico, the US leader will be out to raise the conversation from a narrow focus on differences over Syria to a broader vision of the two world powers’ common interests.

Those interests range from stability in Afghanistan and finding a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions to seeing Europe get through the euro crisis without upending the global economy, White House officials say. Underscoring that common agenda is the fact that American and Russian negotiators will sit down in Moscow with their Iranian counterparts – along with other world powers – to discuss Iran’s nuclear program even as Obama and Mr. Putin meet.

Even on Syria, Obama will emphasize the “areas of considerable overlap” in the two countries’ objectives, one National Security Council official says. Both the US and Russia support the Kofi Annan peace plan, the official notes, and have similar “strategic objectives” that include stopping the Syrian crisis from engulfing a volatile region in a larger conflict.

But that doesn’t mean Obama’s task will be easy. The nationalist and confrontational Putin has already made it clear that he intends to deep-six Mr. Medvedev’s friendly and cooperative approach to the US, and to Obama in particular.

Russia is watching the progress of Russia-focused legislation in the US Congress that targets Russian corruption and human-rights violators. And then there’s the election-year complication of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney casting Russia as “America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

Obama’s most formidable stumbling block in his effort to preserve a cooperative relationship with Russia may be Putin himself. The Russian president declined to attend last month’s G8 meeting at Camp David, claiming he was too busy setting up his new cabinet.

“By not attending the G8, Putin intended to demonstrate that it’s going to be a different attitude, or at least a different style, in US-Russia relations,” says Dimitri Simes, president of Washington’s Center for the National Interest and a prominent Russia expert. “Putin felt Medvedev was too deferential to Obama.”

Putin has also railed against the US for encouraging Russia’s pro-democracy forces – which as it turns out often coincide with the country’s anti-Putin forces – an action he interprets as interference in Russia’s sovereignty.

And if Putin considers American support for pro-democracy groups a stab at Russia, one can only imagine what he thinks of legislation in the US Congress that would target Russian human-rights violators and agents of corruption.

The Magnitsky bill is part of an overall effort to adapt US legislation to Russia’s anticipated entry into the World Trade Organization in August. It is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian whistleblower who died in police custody in 2009 after a year of detention that was widely seen as an effort to silence his allegations of massive official tax fraud. 

Congress is also considering legislation to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), preferential trading-partner status that US business says must be on the books if the US is to take full advantage of Russia’s WTO entry and its projected strong economic growth.

“Every day we wait to pass [PNTR] legislation is a day our competitors can build their Russian market share at our expense,” says Edward Verona, president of the US-Russia Business Council. The Ford Focus has been the top-selling foreign car model in Russia for several years running, Mr. Verona offers as an example, before adding that the high-flying status of American brands would be lost without favorable trade legislation.

The administration has tried to argue that the Magnitsky bill is not necessary, but congressional analysts say some form of the bill is almost certain to pass.

The “nightmare scenario” has Congress passing Magnitsky but then allowing PNTR “to languish,” says Cory Welt, associate director of George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russia, and Eurasian Studies. “We’d have this strong sanctions bill but no trade bill with Russia,” he says.

Dr. Welt says the US should think twice before alienating Russia, when there are so many global issues where the US is looking to garner Russian support.

“Do we really want to brand Russia as we do countries like Iran and Burma … when we want to get Russia’s cooperation on those same countries?” he says.

One can imagine Obama thinking something along those same lines as he prepared for his first sit-down with Putin as president. 

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