August 8, 2013 7:12 pm

Obama’s Putin snub puts new focus on Moscow’s China ties

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping©AFP

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping

When leaders of the G20 assemble in St Petersburg next month, all eyes will be on the body language between the host Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, who this week snubbed the Russian leader by cancelling a separate summit in Moscow.

But the cameras will also be keen to capture the chemistry between Mr Putin and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader who has quietly encouraged the growing rapprochement between the two nations.

Disenchanted by its recent dealings with Mr Putin, the Obama administration is publicly downgrading the sort of relationship it expects to have with Russia. Yet one unintended consequence of such an approach could be to push Russia and China closer together in ways that will not be helpful to US interests.

“These days, Russian and Chinese leaders exchange more phone calls than either does with the US,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think-tank.

US officials insist that the Russian decision to award asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor responsible for leaking some of Washington’s most closely held secrets, was not the only reason for the cancellation of the September summit in Moscow.

With few concrete items on the agenda, they feared the summit would serve only as a useful photo opportunity for Mr Putin, who has cracked down on political opponents since his return to power last year.

However, the new rift with Mr Putin represents a significant setback for an administration which had held high ambitions for its ability to do diplomatic business with Russia.

In April, the then national security adviser Tom Donilon travelled to Moscow and delivered a personal letter to Mr Putin from Mr Obama outlining an agenda of issues the two countries could work together on.

Mr Obama has made new reductions in nuclear weapons one of his key second-term goals, while US officials have talked about co-operation with Russia as the only path to resolving Syria’s civil war.

As Mr Obama admitted last year when he was caught by a live microphone while talking to then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, he hoped to have “more flexibility” after his re-election to talk about missile defence with Russia. Meetings between officials from both countries were mapped out to try and make progress on these and other issues.

The White House’s decision to cancel the Moscow summit is recognition that it was making no progress with this agenda. While both countries had something to offer each other during Mr Obama’s first term – Russian help in Afghanistan, American support for Russian WTO membership – that cupboard now appears to be almost empty.

“With none of the substance coming together, the White House could not let the president go to Moscow,” says Andrew Weiss, a former White House official and Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

Mr Obama is under pressure at home to take a tougher stance with Mr Putin, whose return to the presidency has brought a more abrasive approach towards the US. Politicians in both countries have retained a lot of muscle memory from their Cold War sparring and there are few of the economic ties that restrain the way that American and Chinese leaders deal with each other.

As Mr Obama acknowledged in an interview with Jay Leno on Tuesday, the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Russia could provide a potential flashpoint. “I have no patience” for countries that “intimidate” gays and lesbians, he said in reference to Russian laws on homosexuality and their possible application at the Olympics.

Amid such pressures, however, one important factor for the administration is the tone of relations between Russia and China. The two countries fought a brief war in 1969 and have a history of tension and rivalry. However, they have an ideological affinity in opposing Western interference in the affairs of other countries.

Geopolitical shifts are also pushing them closer together. The US “pivot” towards Asia has encouraged China to foster its ties with Moscow, while slowing energy demand in Europe and the US shale gas revolution is forcing Russia to look for more Asian energy customers. Mr Putin’s first overseas visit on his return to the presidency was to Beijing, while Mr Xi’s first was to Moscow.

According to Mr Simes, one possibility is the re-emergence of the triangular diplomacy of the 1970s, with Russia and China using the prospect of closer ties with each other to improve their leverage over Washington.

“This will not be a formal alliance or a strategic partnership but there is a feeling that they are more and more in the same boat and that they need to stick together to counteract the US,” he says.

Such an approach might have particularly strong attractions for Russia. Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that “Russia’s future dilemma will be how to live in a world where China and the US are stronger and more important than Russia but Russia has to stay in between them”.

“Russia is certainly pivoting towards China,” he added. “In the case of a real deterioration of US-Russia relations, Russia will have no choice but to lean more towards China.”

From ‘reset’ to ‘overload’

January 2009: US President Barack Obama takes office and proclaims his intention to “reset” relations with Russia. In March, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, presents Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, with a red button meant to say “reset” in both Russian and English. However, the Russian word actually translates to “overload”.

April 2009: Mr Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, then Russian president, resolve to co-operate on nuclear arms control at the Group of 20 summit.

December 2009: Russia allows US and Nato troops a supply route through Russia to Afghanistan

April 2010: Both sides sign the New Start Treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals

November 2011: Mr Medvedev warns the US that a failure to take Russian objections to a planned Nato anti-missile shield will spark a new arms race and derail efforts to improve relations between Washington and Moscow

December 2011: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister at the time, accuses Mrs Clinton of encouraging mass opposition protests in Moscow. “She set the tone that gave some of our activists inside the country a signal,” he says

December 2012: US bars entry to Russian officials allegedly connected to the case of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who died in police custody. The same month Mr Putin, now president again, bans the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans

August 2013: Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is given temporary asylum in Russia after spending several weeks holed up in Sheremeyevo airport in Moscow. Mr Obama cancels talks with Mr Putin while a White House statement lists other areas of dispute including missile defence, arms control and human rights. “There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” says Mr Obama

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