David J. Kramer: Obama Raises the Stakes of Putin’s Repression

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Wednesday to cancel the planned bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin in early September was the right thing to do for many reasons. It also marked much-needed corrections in Obama’s „reset” policy toward Russia.

An accumulation of factors went into Obama’s decision. The White House press secretary’s statement cited „the lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months.”(…)
U.S. officials realized that there would be no deliverables to justify a summit in September. When they last met in June on the margins of the Group of Eight meeting in Northern Ireland, Obama and Putin issued a joint communique that absurdly spoke of ” principles of mutual respect.”
But the U.S. side should have zero respect for Putin’s brutal crackdown against human rights, the worst since the Soviet collapse.(…)

Obama’s reference during his news conference to Putin’s anti-Americanism hit at a central problem. On a regular basis, Putin trashes the U.S. and describes it as a threat. Recall his blast against the West in his speech in Munich in 2007 and then his comparison a few months later of the U.S. to the Third Reich, or his attacks against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he blamed for stirring up the protests in Russia in December 2011. He evinces disdain for his current U.S. counterpart and disrespect for the U.S. in general. Granting Snowden asylum a month before Obama was to come to Moscow to meet with Putin was the latest manifestation of ¬Putin’s anti-U.S. campaign.

This typifies a schizophrenia Putin has toward the U.S. On one hand, he demonizes the U.S. and cites it as a threat to try to justify his way of ruling the country and consolidating power, starting with the takeover of television networks in his early presidential days, to his abuse of the legal system to go after leading opposition figures such as Mikhail Khodorokovsky in 2003 and Navalny. In overseeing a corrupt regime, Putin seeks to instill a sense of fear among those who might challenge his grip on power while manufacturing threats from the West to justify whatever he needs to do to preserve that power. According to a new Levada Center poll, disappointment in Putin among Russians is on the rise, and the economy is facing serious challenges. As a result, we can expect the U.S. to become even more of a punching bag. But at the same time, Putin wants the legitimacy and acceptance of the West to accompany his tough-guy image. Standing together with his G8 colleagues, whom he is scheduled to host next year, or sharing a stage with the U.S. president are, in his mind, ways to legitimize his rein both internationally and at home.

Last week, finally, Obama broke his painfully long silence over Putin’s brazen behavior and rhetoric, essentially saying that enough was enough. In canceling his meeting with Putin, Obama also abandoned two central tenets of his reset policy: his happy talk of a „win-win” approach to relations and his public and repeated rejection of linkage. Putin’s zero-sum mindset simply doesn’t have room for thinking in mutually beneficial ways.

Until last week, the U.S. administration had made clear that Putin’s human rights crackdown and anti-Americanism would not affect the broader U.S.-Russian relationship. Such an approach irresponsibly sent Putin a green light to engage in egregious abuses without having to worry about paying any price in bilateral ties. Last week, however, in a long overdue policy correction, Obama changed the green light to at least a yellow one. This sent an important signal both to Putin and to Russians that there indeed are costs to bad behavior.

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House in Washington.

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