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Despite Snowden and Syria Cooling U.S.-Russian Relations, Work Goes On

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama greet each other Thursday at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

First, it was National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden getting temporary asylum in Russia and then the stalemate over U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. Lately, Russia and the United States appear far from being on the same page, even in the same book at times, but will it impact their relationship long-term?

Not likely in the case of Snowden, said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program.

Russia granting one-year asylum in August to Snowden, whose release of top-secret NSA surveillance programs continues to dog President Obama during foreign trips, won’t have much of a shelf-life, said Mankoff.

It was more like a Cold War-era tweak of the United States, agreed presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

But Syria is more complicated with real interests at stake on both sides, said Mankoff. As the United States appears poised to strike the military infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack on Damascus, “there’s a lot we don’t know about the consequences and how Russia might respond,” setting up the prospect for lingering tensions between the two countries, he said.
The United States and Russia don’t agree on whether Assad has a future in the government, nor do they agree on military intervention, but they aren’t that far apart on the end game in Syria: “there needs to be some sort of political agreement and a government in Damascus that’s not dominated by extremists,” said Mankoff.

Despite their differences on Syria, Russia continues to help the United States with supply lines for its troops in Afghanistan, and both countries are working together on counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts.

When asked about strained relations with Russia at a press conference in Sweden on Wednesday, President Obama cited those efforts as examples of the United States and Russia working together on matters of mutual interest.

Although Putin has resisted “even the most modest of resolutions” condemning Syria’s actions in the U.N. Security Council, President Obama said, “I will continue to engage him because I think that international action would be much more effective and ultimately we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems.”

Mankoff said it’s a familiar cycle. Every U.S. presidential administration going back to the end of the Cold War starts off seeking to prioritize efforts with Russia, and both sides are engaging. “Then over time, the cooperation gets exhausted, disagreements build up and you get these periods of tension.”

Other areas of disagreement include the U.S. pursuit of a missile defense system in Europe and Russia’s law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors,” which President Obama criticized during an appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show” last month.

During the Cold War, according to Beschloss, things were almost easier. The leaders of both countries knew that they were dealing with an equal superpower with control of nuclear weapons. “It wasn’t a friendly relationship, but there was a predictability about it.”

But in a post-Cold War climate, the two countries manage a new kind of relationship. “This is someone who is neither friend nor foe, so it’s a relationship that’s more unpredictable,” said Beschloss. “And oddly enough the result could be more dangerous” in a world of untidy governments and the potential for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In a more complicated world, how U.S. and Russian leaders view each other personally seems to matter less than whether the issues are of mutual interest, Beschloss noted.

“We’ve kind of hit a wall,” President Obama said at the Stockholm press conference. “But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues.”

Putin struck the same note when asked about the United States in an interview with the Associated Press: “We work, we argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes one of us gets vexed. But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems.”

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