August 10, 2013

The single most important national security imperative for the United States is to maintain correct relations with Russia. It’s not al-Qaida, NSA, China, North Korea, or any other issue.

That’s why President Barack Obama’s insulting cancellation of his planned meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, during the 5-6 September Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg is so dismaying.

Russia has over 3,000 active nuclear warheads, the majority aimed at North America. The US has a similarly powerful nuclear arsenal, primarily targeted on Russia, or in reserve for a second strike in the event of all-out war.

When two men are holding loaded pistols to each other’s heads, keeping cool, calm and polite is imperative. But that’s just what Washington has not been doing, exposing Americans to an unnecessary national security risk for no apparent gain.

Informal meetings between heads of state on the sidelines of major international meetings are common and useful. Such sit-downs serve to smooth over ongoing disputes and send a message of orderly, civilized relations. The tone is often more important than the content.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have been growing steadily
chillier over recent years. Gone are the days when the credulous George Bush could say he looked into Vlad Putin’s eyes and trusted him. A series of disputes – Syria, Palestine, arms control, missile defense – bedevil US-Russian relations. Washington has been blasting Moscow over human rights, which is pretty rich coming after Guantanamo, waterboarding, and massive US spying on the whole world, including Americans.

Behind this Big Chill is Washington’s ongoing treatment of Russia as a second or third-rate power. The US lectures and hectors Russia and affords scant concern of Moscow’s strategic interests or spheres of interest. Europe gets much the same treatment. Whenever Russia refuses to go along with US policy – Syria being a good example – it comes in for barrages of criticism over human and political rights in America’s state-influenced media and Congress.

President Putin is no angel: he’s tough as nails and brooks no opposition. But that’s what Russians want. Putin has raised Russia off its knees.

In 1989, I was the first western journalist admitted into KGB’s Moscow headquarters, the Lubyanka. I was told by senior KGB generals that they were ditching the rotten, corrupt Communist Party. What Russia needed, they said, was a tough, iron-fisted leader like the strongmen then running Chile and South Korea. Shortly after, KGB mounted a palace coup in the Kremlin and installed one of its star officers, Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, then president.

Now, President Obama has made clear he is boycotting his planned meeting with Putin because of human rights issues and Syria. The 800-lb gorilla he did not mention is Edward Snowden, now in temporary Russian exile. Given that Washington is in bed with numerous rights violators – think of Uzbekistan, Mubarak’s Egypt, Azerbaijan – its squeamishness over Russia rings hollow.

As for Syria, it’s Washington that is violating international law by fomenting the uprising against the Assad regime in Damascus; Russia is well within its legal rights to support Assad and arm him. More important, Syria is close to southern Russia and a long-time Soviet/Russian ally. Imagine the US response if Russia sought to overthrow Mexico’s government using Cuban advisors and local insurgents.

Imagine if the US increased its arms supplies to Syria’s rebels and imposed a no-fly zone, as Sen. John McCain urges. Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles down US warplanes. The US launches attacks on Russian AA units, then on Russian ships delivering arms to the Assad government. It’s not hard to see how a direct clash over Syria could put Russia and the US on their most perilous collision course since the Cuban missile crisis.

Instead of dealing with this major threat, Obama, under blistering attack from Republicans over the deaths of three Americans in Benghazi, Libya, is offending Putin and indeed all Russians. This is foolish, short-sighted and sure to worsen US-Russian relations as well as scuttling chances of an arms control pact in the next few years.

Or, in simple English: President Obama, don’t kick sand in the face of a man holding a gun to your head. How about some presidential behavior re Russia?

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2013

This post is in: International Politics, Russia, Syria, USA


  1. It would be interesting to know more about Obama’s real motives for snubbing Putin.There doesn’t seem to be anything to be gained by it. At this late stage in his second term of office, why is he making such poor decisions? I just cannot believe this is only about Syria – Americans don’t care a fig about Syria – or the Snowdon boondoggle, particularly when the majority of Americans believe Snowdon is a whistle-blower and are angry about the Obama administration’s use of covert surveillance tactics being used on Americans even while Obama protested he was doing no such thing.

  2. Mike Smith says:

    No problem at all. Putin is hosting this shindig. Let the conference go as scheduled,,, except when Airforce One is coming in to land deny them clearance and send them on their way.
    Have a G-19, cut the yanks out of the meeting and make some serious negotiations with the rest. Maybe send Stevie boy home too, can’t see him being any fun at a party anyway.

  3. I’m reminded of the good days where Gorbachev was instrumental in bringing about change in the former Soviet Union and the reunification of both Germanys.This what I call real progress….much like extending an Olive branch.Keeping in mind that Russia and Putin are no angels,the US has shown it’s ugly side and in no way is superior than Russia in moral issues.Mr. Margolis pointed out several examples above….good for him.

    I’m still waiting for President Obama to show the world that he is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize,which he had received right after his first inauguration….did I miss something here?Did Obama perform some sort of miracle to bring the world that much closer to being peaceful?I think not.Meanwhile,I was following the whole fiasco last week about America’s disappointment that Putin had given whistleblower Snowden temporary asylum…for now.In retaliation Obama cancelled an upcoming meeting with Putin before the summit in St. Petersburg….which Obama indicated he will attend.If he didn’t he would have become the laughing stock….imagine a President of the most powerful nation not attending a summit because he didn’t get his way!

    Now having said all this,it was Obama who had said that Putin was acting like a spoiled brat here…..huh?How many times has the US granted as asylum to Russians fleeing to find a better life in America and not a peep from Moscow?It seems to me that President Obama has NOT lived up to the great expectations from the American people who put him into the White House,but rather has stirred up a hornets nest in regards to the Nuclear arms race….which was supposed to be scaled back largely due to Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev’s fine efforts.If Obama had any credibility left in him,he would relinquish the Nobel Peace Prize as it perfectly clear that he is not deserving of it….far,far from it.I just hope Obama changes his mind on this very important issue and have that meeting with Vladimir Putin.It’s the least that he can do, not only for America,but the entire world.Now Mr. President,the ball is squarely in your court….don’t screw up AGAIN.

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