President Barack Obama is going face-to-face for the first time in two years with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both leaders will be at the United Nations today where they’re expected to have a private meeting. The Administration isn’t exactly hopeful the meeting will be like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev but one official told POLITCO Obama doesn’t really have any choice.
“Given the situations in Ukraine and Syria, despite our profound differences with Moscow, the president believes that it would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians.”
Obama and Putin’s interactions have been limited. They spoke by phone in July, but before then it was last November. It’s not exactly a great relationship and the administration is probably right in thinking it won’t thaw anytime soon. But today is even more interesting because both Obama and Putin are going to talk before the General Assembly. The Wall Street Journal thinks this will basically layout what Obama wants to do for the rest of his presidency.
He is set to address the General Assembly on Monday, a speech that will serve as a road map for how he intends to approach the remaining 16 months of his term. He is expected to appear again next autumn but will have only a few months remaining in office.
Mr. Putin also is scheduled to address the world body on Monday, and the Middle East will be central to the U.S. and Russian leaders’ high-stakes talks.
It wouldn’t be surprising for Putin to talk Syria and ask the West to stay out of it. As for Obama, who knows? He’s expected to talk to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi on climate change, but everything else is kind of up in the air. If he also decides to talk climate change before the General Assembly, then it just shows Obama’s given up on trying to have a good relationship with Russia. That might seem all well and good with people like Senator John McCain, but it’s not how to win Chilly Battle (let alone Cold War II). Reagan did talk with Russia during his first term, even if they weren’t always kind. From the State Department’s history of U.S-Soviet relations.
[ Reagan ] wrote to Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, imploring them to alleviate Cold War tensions and negotiate arms reductions. He lifted the grain embargo as a show of good faith, but the crackdown on Solidarity and declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981 led the President to declare further economic sanctions against Moscow and curtail U.S.-Soviet academic exchanges.
Although formal nuclear arms control talks resumed, the relationship between Washington and Moscow remained tense throughout Reagan’s first term.
This doesn’t mean things stayed this way. Marc Ambinder wrote in The Week in March 2014 how Reagan decided engagement was the way to get the Soviets more under control, especially when it came to deception.
After the biennial NATO Able Archer nuclear command post exercise in 1983, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had no illusions about Soviet deception campaigns, told Reagan that the Soviets seemed genuinely alarmed by what they believed were preparations for a U.S. first strike. U.S. intelligence assessments later concluded that the Soviet reaction to the exercise reflected real fear. That year, a series of incidents proved spooky for both sides, most indelibly the September downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which the Soviets (legitimately, according to classified histories) mistook for a U.S. electronic surveillance plane that was orbiting nearby. Among other things, what scared the Soviet leadership was the fact that the Reagan administration seemed willing to deliberately misstate the facts on the ground, to the world, in order to gain leverage when strategic nuclear arms reduction talks were slated to resume in October. (That, of course, was exactly what the Soviets were doing, regularly, with world events.)
Ambinder also suggests Obama admires Reagan for thinking long-term but that’s not what he’s doing. Instead, Obama is doing his best Jimmy Carter imitation by just not speaking to Putin. Carter’s relationship with Brezhnev was so chilly, it’d make the Ninth Circle of Hell look like an island in the sun with the 1980 Summer Olympics boycott and the grain embargo. Obama appears to be doing the exact same thing and maybe even more so than Carter ever did. As POLITCO wrote, Obama thinks Putin isn’t someone worth talking to.
Obama personally disdains Putin and has been happy to snub him in the past. After Moscow granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden in August 2013, Obama cancelled a planned bilateral summit with the Russian president.
Several officials recommended that Obama hold a working meeting with Putin at a subsequent G20 summit in St. Petersburg that September, but Obama overruled that advice and wound up having only a fleeting handshake encounter with the Russian leader.
It’s really too bad Obama isn’t willing to talk to Putin because they might be able to make headway if they had honest communication with each other. It’s in the communication part where Carly Fiorina is wrong. She doesn’t want to talk to Putin and said in the last debate she’d rather just expand the military. But that’s not what Reagan did. Again from the State Department.
The President spoke of leaving “Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history;” labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire;” and introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), which Soviet leaders found highly threatening. The nadir of this time period was the fall of 1983, when the Soviets shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 over the Sea of Japan, NATO deployed a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, and Soviet negotiators walked out of arms control talks in Geneva…The President seldom intervened to resolve such disputes, yet he shared Shultz’s enthusiasm for establishing a dialogue on human rights—in particular, the plight of religious and political dissidents—as a central focus of U.S.-Soviet negotiations…The March 1985 appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union provided Reagan with a viable negotiating partner.
Donald Trump and Rand Paul were the only candidates to actually suggest talking to Putin and that’s the way the U.S. should go. The conversations Putin would have with a President Trump or President Paul would be much different, but talking is worth trying. It’s disappointing Obama won’t bother with it. So much for that “flexibility” he wanted in 2011.