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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system