I’d love to be an invisible presence in the room the next time Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin sit down for a chat. The high stakes drama of the Cold War is gone, but the Russian president is the American president’s nemesis on everything from sarin gas attacks in Syria to gay rights in Russia. To see them spar would be enlightening entertainment.
After intelligence specialist Edward Snowden leaked information about U.S. cyberspying earlier this year, he went on the lam and found refuge in Moscow. Putin is the one who decided to lay out the welcome mat for the American fugitive, and the consequences of that decision are playing out right now.
The White House canceled a much-anticipated one-on-one meeting between the two presidents that had been planned as a prelude to this week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a way to put Putin on notice that shielding Snowden from American justice was a bad choice. Rather than meeting with Putin, Obama is getting together with Russian human rights groups, including gay and lesbian activists who have been creating an international stir with their protests against new laws that deepen discrimination against sexual minorities in Russia.
If Snowden was a tool for Putin to give Obama a very public poke in the eye, Obama’s meeting with gays on Russian soil is a sharp poke back at Putin.
The G-20 meeting is supposed to be focused on world economic issues, but news from the event will likely be dominated by Obama’s efforts to gather more allies for his proposed missile strike against Syria. Putin, the Syrian regime’s prime benefactor, will very likely be pushing the other way.
Putin and Obama are both cool customers. They are nothing like Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon, who found a commonality in their crude humor and dark sensibilities about the uses of power. Neither are they like Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, two men who shared converging streaks of idealism. I doubt if Obama looks into Putin’s eyes and sees his soul, as George W. Bush claimed to have done. Obama likely sees only ice and steel. For his part, Putin may see another neophyte in the current American president, but, unlike what he saw with Bush, the Russian leader appreciates that he is dealing with a man of dispassionate intelligence. In fact, he said as much in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia,” Putin said. “And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either. 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."
Yes, the Russians and American presidents may find themselves at odds more than they are working in accord, but one gets the strong sense that Putin and Obama are not going to let personal rancor or unruly emotions push the two countries to the brink of conflict. They are chess players, not saber rattlers, and that is good news for America, Russia and the world.