In touring Europe this week, President Barack Obama has portrayed Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a ruler with whom he can build a “constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of a Cold War mind-set.” It’s a blinkered view that willfully ignores the Russian president’s behavior.
As Obama sees it, Putin is a plausible partner for a major new reduction of nuclear arsenals, including both strategic and tactical weapons; he is ready to “further deepen our economic and commercial relationships.” True, the two presidents have “differing perspectives” on Syria, but the Kremlin leader Obama describes shares his vision of how the Syrian war should end and over time can probably be persuaded on the tactics.
Most of all, Obama’s Putin is a leader whose domestic policies are irrelevant to his relations with the United States, his willingness or ability to strike all those deals or the American mission, extolled by Obama in Berlin on Wednesday, of “advancing the values we believe in.” Neither in that speech nor in his joint public appearance with Putin on Monday did Obama make any reference to Russian politics or human rights.
This is a vision entirely at odds with Putin’s record since he returned to the office of president last year. In an attempt to suppress swelling protests against his rigged re-election and the massively corrupt autocracy he presides over, Putin has launched what both Russian and Western human rights groups describe as the most intense and pervasive campaign of political repression since the downfall of the Soviet Union. Not just opposition leaders but also former senior Kremlin officials have been prosecuted or driven into exile; independent civic and human rights groups are being systematically stripped of funding and legal protection.
Having lost the support of the urban middle class in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, Putin has been fortifying his base among Russia’s nationalists and Orthodox Christians. That means basing his foreign policy on anti-Americanism. U.S. aid programs have been shut down and Americans banned from adopting Russian children. An intense propaganda campaign is being waged by government-backed media, one of which recently claimed the Obama administration has secretly allied with al-Qaida. More substantively, Putin has devoted himself to thwarting the Western goal of regime change in Syria, a stance that serves his political goals at home as much as it does in the Middle East.
Unless and until President Bashar Assad loses Syria’s civil war — something Russia is trying to prevent with massive supplies of weapons — Putin will not alter this stance. Nor is he likely to seriously engage with Obama on the proposed reductions of nuclear weapons. Instead, he will use the issue to demand a dismantling of NATO’s missile defense architecture in Europe. Any serious progress on economic and commercial issues would require the Kremlin to purge corrupt bureaucrats and end its shakedowns of foreign firms — yet there, too, Putin is headed in the opposite direction.
It makes sense to maintain lines of communication with the Russian leader. But a strategy of silence on human rights in hope of cutting deals is neither realistic nor pragmatic. In fact, it is starry-eyed in its stubborn optimism, in spite of all the evidence, that bargains in keeping with U.S. interests remain likely.