In their search for a constructive partnership, Washington and Moscow will have to overcome differences on the global missile shield issue and Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on the margins of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland for their first bilateral since Mr. Obama embarked on his second term six months ago.
The meeting may be crucial in deciding whether they can build a constructive partnership after the much-vaunted “reset” launched when Mr. Obama entered the White House in 2009 ran aground towards the end of his first term.
Moscow struck a hard tone on U.S. criticism of its crackdown on the opposition after Mr. Putin reclaimed presidency in May 2012; relations between the two countries dipped to a low point at the turn of the year when they adopted legislation penalising each other for alleged human rights abuses.
In the past few months, Moscow and Washington have since sought to rebuild ties focussing on strategic issues. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin have recently exchanged confidential letters formulating their proposals for enhancing bilateral cooperation.
Experts have identified two key issues that may help revive the spirit of the “reset.” One is U.S. plans for a global missile shield, which remains a sticking point in bilateral ties.
“If we find common language [on missile defence], we could speak of a beginning of new positive dynamics in U.S.-Russian relations,” said Alexei Pushkov, head of international affairs at the State Duma, lower house of the Russian Parliament.
Two years ago, Mr. Obama told then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “greater flexibility” on issues of discord with Russia, “particularly missile defence,” after winning a second term ticket.
Following Mr. Obama’s re-election, the Pentagon announced a shift in its missile defence plans from Europe to Asia that would involve scrapping deployment of more powerful missile interceptors near Russia’s borders from 2018. Mr. Obama reportedly also offered to give Moscow political assurances that the U.S. missile defence would not target Russia. The pledge would come in the form of an “executive agreement,” which does not require congressional approval.
The Kremlin however rejected the offer reiterating its demand for legally binding security guarantees.
“Russia’s position [on missile defence] differs in many respects from the U.S. vision,” said Yuri Ushakov, Mr. Putin’s foreign policy aide. “I do not think agreement can be reached on the missile defence issue in Lough Erne.”
The other key issue where Russia and the U.S. are struggling to find common ground is Syria. Moscow and Washington have backed opposite sides in the conflict, but last month they agreed to co-sponsor an international peace conference to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
“It is for the first time in recent years that Russia and the U.S. have come up with a joint initiative that may have a lasting effect on international relations globally,” said Prof. Veniamin Popov of the Institute of International Relations, Russia’s premier diplomatic school.
However, the idea of bringing the warring sides in the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table has run into serious disagreements over the list of participants and the terms of peaceful settlement in Syria. Moscow wants all main opposition groups, and not just the West-backed National Coalition Council to attend the proposed forum.
It is also pushing for Iran’s participation, which is opposed by the U.S. Moscow and Washington also differ on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be part of a peaceful transition in Syria.
Some experts have called these differences insurmountable, but Mr. Putin expressed optimism that positions can be bridged.
“I hope very much that… our joint work will give a chance for settlement in that country [Syria],” he said earlier this week. In an interview to the Russia Today TV channel, the Russian leader also set out his overriding task in dealing with the U.S. – help it climb down from its grandstanding as the world’s master.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the world’s single leader. But there was a catch associated with it in that it began to view itself as an empire… An empire cannot afford to display weakness, and any attempt to strike an agreement on equitable terms is often seen domestically as weakness.
“I think that the current [U.S.] administration realises that it cannot solve the world’s major issues on its own. But first, they still want to do it, and second, they can only take steps that are fit for an empire … Otherwise they would be accused of weakness… It certainly takes time to change those patterns of thinking,” Mr. Putin went on to say.
“I don’t think that it’s impossible. I think we’ve almost come to that point. I very much hope we will reach it soon.”