20 years under Putin: a timeline

The meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland left an impression that the White House is ready to cooperate on the Kremlin’s terms. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, finds “inexplicable” the US president’s unwillingness to publicly mention human rights in his conversation with Putin.



There was much to talk about for the world leaders attending the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland on June 17-18: Syria was in flames, Iran had just elected a new president, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remained interrupted, and one of the representatives present, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was ruthlessly cracking down on political opponents. But the main message coming out of the talks seemed to be the participants’ concern about Putin’s mood. After the discussions concluded, the Russian leader, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s few allies and the main obstacle to achieving an international consensus on a way to end Syria’s civil war, was asked by one reporter whether he felt “lonely” among the other world leaders over the past two days. “No, that’s absolutely not true,” Putin answered. “It was a general discussion…but Russia was never left to defend its approach to the Syrian problem on its own.” Talk of Moscow’s isolation had been raised by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the G-8 meeting began, perhaps as a tactic to force Putin to compromise. Singling out the Kremlin’s support for Assad, Harper said, “this is the G-7 plus one.”

For observers who felt the G-8 meeting was a chance for the Kremlin to prove its good faith as a key contributor to global security, the summit was a failure. Putin succeeded in blocking mention of Assad from the bland final communiqué that backed the Geneva peace process and called for a vague “transitional governing body.” All participants but Russia support his ouster and, though Harper mystifyingly and inaccurately reversed course and announced that Russia had changed its position, Putin repeated that he was against arming the Syrian opposition and claimed there was no proof Assad had used chemical weapons. During the talks, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia would fulfill its contract to deliver S300 advanced air defense systems to Assad. After the proceedings ended on June 20, Lavrov criticized the West for impeding the work of the planned international peace conference. That same day Putin faulted the West for failing to ensure that the weapons it plans to supply to Syrian rebels do not fall into the wrong hands.

Inexplicably, Obama did not once publicly criticize Putin over human rights.

The stalemate at the Northern Ireland summit was a blow to White House efforts to constructively re-engage with the Kremlin, relations with whom have become strained due to the Syria crisis, passage of the Magnitsky Act, Russia’s adoption ban last fall, and differences over missile defense. With Putin and Obama glumly sitting side-by-side in adjacent chairs, Putin announced, “Our opinions do not coincide. But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria.” Inexplicably, Obama did not once publicly criticize Putin over human rights, the rule of law, the prosecution of opposition leaders, the pressure on nongovernmental organizations, or the adoption issue, for which the US president is under heavy pressure from Congress and prospective parents. Instead, Obama praised a new deal with Russia to dismantle chemical and nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. The approving comment by an Obama Administration official that the new nuclear agreement was less intrusive than its predecessor, the respected Nunn-Lugar program, showed how deferential the White House is to the Kremlin’s sensibilities about foreign involvement in Russia’s “internal affairs.”



President Obama turned quixotic in Berlin, the next stop on his European trip, when at the Brandenburg Gate he proposed reducing US-deployed strategic nuclear warheads by one-third, to about 1,000. While the offer was placed in the context of US-Russia relations, Obama did not appear to rule out unilateral reductions—a move that would face substantial opposition in the US Senate—or putting such cuts outside the Congressional treaty ratification process entirely. Despite the support of arms control enthusiasts in Washington for the proposal, the prospects for concluding an arms control treaty with Russia are dim. About the same time as Obama delivered his address, Putin, speaking to arms industry officials in St. Petersburg, warned that Russia needs to preserve its strategic deterrent in the face of US missile defense plans and increasingly powerful conventional weapons. Igor Korotchenko, a member of the advisory board of the Russian defense ministry, called further reductions “unacceptable.” If anything, in recent months the Kremlin’s position has become tougher.

Having lost the support of the urban middle class, Putin has been strengthening his base among nationalists.

Having lost the support of the urban middle class in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin has been strengthening his base among nationalists and working people in the regions. This means making anti-Americanism a basis of his foreign policy. In an exclusive interview with RT, the Kremlin-funded English-language satellite television network, during the run-up to the G-8 meeting, Putin praised the channel for ending “the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon media” in the world. He reminded viewers that the US was founded on the “ethnic cleansing” of its native populations and used the atomic bomb against Japan at the end of World War II. Putin also presented the Kremlin’s alternative view of global affairs in which a beleaguered Russia “wages a lonely battle for principle and common sense against a cynical and hypocritical West.” This rhetoric reflects a deeper turning inward in the Kremlin. Gone is the openness toward external influences that characterized the years of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency. Among the more dubious outcomes of the Northern Ireland meeting was the recommendation to re-establish US-Russia presidential commissions on key issues, an approach that did not work well even in better times. Russia will not integrate with the West, the Kremlin now insists. Any cooperation will be on its own terms.

In this regard, the Syria crisis provides the Russian leadership with a chance to demonstrate its hard new approach to foreign affairs even as, in the view of the well-connected foreign policy commentator Fyodor Lukyanov, Moscow’s obstinacy gives the West an excuse not to become involved. For Lukyanov, even the Obama Administration’s disengagement from Afghanistan, willingness to negotiate with Iran, and dithering over Syria have sinister motives. “America is composing itself,” he writes, “Syria and even Iran are less important to its future positions in the world than the creation of an economic community of the United States and the European Union, as announced by the interested parties at the G-8.” If this succeeds,” he adds, “then the possibility of the new ‘West’ influencing world processes and imposing its own rules of play will increase sharply.”