On the opposite end of the tactical spectrum was the option of having a summit with Putin in order to underscore the differences, starting with the body language — remember Obama’s first meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? — and ending up with a press conference at which Obama could have hinted at the substance of his so-called frank talk with Putin and criticized Russia’s human rights record in front of the world. And don’t underestimate the effect of an American president finally telling the Russian autocrat face to face what he thinks of his crackdown.
Both of these options would have served an immediate political, rather than purely symbolic, purpose. As it is for most authoritarians in the Third World or in emerging markets, Putin’s anti-Americanism is often less about policy issues — he has all but begged the United States not to leave Afghanistan — than it is about boosting his domestic popularity, which is steadily sagging under the weight of economic slowdown, rising prices for staples and utilities, widespread dissatisfaction with housing availability, steadily deteriorating health care and education and, of course, the ubiquitous, near-paralyzing corruption.