U.S. Versus Russia: Reset, Upset, Get-Set

Photograph by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes US President Barack Obama at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg.

For the U.S. and Russia, a reset that yielded to upset has become a get-set for possible failure.

Not long ago, the only overriding public conflict between the two was the question of a U.S. radar and defensive missile network in Poland and the Czech Republic that the Russians considered way too close to home. Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin testily steered around that conflict.

Now, while Moscow provides sanctuary for a former National Security Agency contractor who exposed the workings of U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance and faces an espionage charge back home (the upset), President Barack Obama is counting on Putin to help him negotiate a diplomatic alternative to a U.S. military strike against Syria.

It was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, en route to a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2009, early in the Obama administration, who said then: “We’re going to hit the reset button and start fresh because clearly the Obama administration believes that there are a number of important areas to discuss with the Russians. ”

It was her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, who made a less calculated comment this week about the U.S. withdrawing the threat of military action against Syria if Damascus would forfeit its chemical weapons. And so now it is Kerry who is off to Geneva to meet with Lavrov: Reset 2.0.

“Russia has not been helpful” for the last couple years as it relates to Syria, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged today. Yet “it is absolutely the right thing to do… to pursue this specific avenue,” he said of talks aimed at forcing Syria to relinquish the chemical weapons it deployed against its own people on Aug. 21.

Nor has Russia been helpful in the matter of Edward Snowden, the fugitive ex-NSA contractor who has found refuge in the land of Putin and Lavrov — so unhelpful, indeed, that Obama called off a meeting with Putin in Moscow earlier this month partly because of Snowden and partly because the White House thought there was little to talk about.

As Obama threatened a military strike against Syria, Obama and Putin met instead in St. Petersburg, on the sidelines of the summit of the leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized nations.

“It was a candid and constructive conversation, which characterizes my relationship with him,” said Obama, which is diplomatic-speak for the fact that the Secret Service and KGB didn’t have to be called into the room. Putin, after all, is the leader whom Obama has likened, in his body language, to a “bored” school kid. “As I’ve said before, everybody’s always trying to look for body language and all that, but the truth of the matter is, is that my interactions with him tend to be very straightforward.”

In their talks about Syria, Obama said at a news conference after their meeting, the two had “a full airing of views on the issue.” They agreed that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, Obama said, and they agreed that the international “norm against using chemical weapons has to be maintained.”

Still, it was not until Kerry unwittingly offered Russia an opening with the idea of corraling Syria’s chemical weapons that talks could get under way in earnest. The White House insists that it was the threat of U.S. military action that made this possible.

“The credible threat of U.S. military action is (still) on the table,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said today at a press briefing, the day after Obama announced that he was asking Congress to slow-walk the resolution authorizing military force that he wanted. His boss “remains ready” for military action, he said,“if necessary.”

Asked about National Security Adviser Susan Rice dismissing talk of a diplomatic solution, noting at the start of this week that Russia has never been helpful in the pursuit of a negotiated solution to the civil war in Syria, Carney said: “Susan Rice’s comments and Secretary Kerry’s comments reflected the reality that we had dealt with,” he said, until Russia advanced the current concept of placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and destroying them.

“Russia’s made this proposal, Russia is engaging with the United States,” he said, “and we will see where this leads.”

This is the get-set part.

“There is certainly reason to be skeptical,” Carney said. “We are entering this with our eyes wide open.”


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