Tension between America and Russia will pass – eventually

Mr Putin reflexively takes the opposite point of view to Washington

Share

Once upon a time, the news that a planned summit between Washington and Moscow had been called off would have sent a small shudder of anxiety through the world’s chancelleries. No longer. President Barack Obama’s decision not to hold talks with Vladimir Putin next month was both inevitable and eminently sensible.

The White House, of course, has not escaped criticism from some quarters at home. The US and the Soviet Union managed to hold summits even during the depths of the Cold War, it has been noted, when the divide separating the rival superpowers was even greater. So why could not Mr Obama, who used to set such store by a “reset” in relations with Russia, have gone through with the September summit, notwithstanding current problems?

But that historical comparison is false. The Cold War ended almost 22 years ago, and the Soviet Union lost. But as Mr Obama pointed out this week, Mr Putin acts as if it continues, almost reflexively taking the opposite point of view to Washington on every problem of the moment. Such a nationalistic approach may play well to a domestic audience. The Russian President, however, appears not to have noticed how much the world has changed since 25 December 1991, when the red flag with the hammer and sickle was hauled down from the Kremlin towers for the last time.

Today, military might and the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal count far less than its economic prowess, its entrepreneurialism, competitiveness and centrality to the global trading system. America has remained the lone military superpower largely by default. Neither the EU nor China has the desire to be able to send fleets and armies to the opposite ends of the earth. Putin’s Russia would like to, but no longer has the capacity.

Economically, it is a mid-sized power, no higher than eighth on most ranking lists, with a GDP that is barely a 10th of that of the US. In Cold War times, the discrepancy between the dismal consumer economy and the vast military budget saw the Soviet Union described as “Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] with missiles”. The fashionable jibe these days involves another West African nation. “Nigeria with snow” Russia has been called, a reference to its corruption, its scant respect for the rule of law and its dependence on raw materials, above all oil and gas.

With the Cold War over, Russia retains its ability to obstruct, but simply doesn’t matter as it did before. Had the summit gone ahead, Mr Obama would have been on a hiding to nothing. Such meetings are not spontaneous, ad hoc occasions. They are carefully choreographed and prepared; usually communiqués are worked out well in advance. But right now, apart from the evident personal dislike between the two men, the differences appear unbridgeable – on Syria, missile defence and Mr Putin’s internal repression, to name but three issues. Moscow’s granting of asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden was merely the last straw. Had the US President gone to Moscow and returned empty-handed, as was all but certain, he would have been pilloried at home by Republicans as weak and over-trusting.

As it is, high-level contacts continue, as shown by yesterday’s talks in Washington DC between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. The atmosphere is likely to have been chilly, but Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, has rarely been an easy bedfellow. Over the past 70 years, bilateral relations have hit equal lows, and at moments when the stakes were much higher. This low too will pass, but perhaps not until Mr Putin departs the stage.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss