The Kremlin statement on the telecon between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on Friday is not exactly euphoric; it was a ‘detailed’ conversation and ‘constructive’ Obama initiated the phone call.
According to the Kremlin statement, the two leaders stressed the “fundamental importance” of US-Russia relationship in “assuring stability throughout the world” (not global strategic balance). They felt it desirable that neither side should take steps that could “impact negatively” on bilateral ties.
The reference to Syria is anodyne. (By the way, Russian Foreign Ministry was only mildly critical of the Friends of Syria meet in Rome, accusing it of encouraging rebels to continue fighting.)
The Kremlin statement mentioned missile defence as one amongst few ‘hot-button’ topics on which Putin and Obama agreed to “work closely.” (The other topics singled out were Syria, Middle East peace process, Iran and North Korea.)
Meanwhile, the two presidents won’t have a ‘stand-alone’ summit anytime soon, although a meeting is scheduled on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland in June — and later at the G-20 in Russia in September.
Now, juxtapose the Kremlin statement with the White House readout, and some nuances appear. The White House readout: a) underscores that Obama’s intent was to “coordinate” with Russia on regional and global issues; b) singles out Iran and Syria as key issues; c) omits any reference to missile defence.
To my mind, Obama seemed to elicit Russia’s cooperation in his game plan for the Iran question in the period ahead, while offering his own cooperation over the crisis in Syria. Would the Kremlin warm up to Obama’s ‘selective engagement’?
A real breakthrough can happen only if a way forward could be found on the missile defence issue. The mood in Moscow has toughened. (An ‘anti-American’ rally was held in Moscow on Saturday, which was apparently “state-endorsed”.)
But on the other hand, the budget crisis in the US can have strange fallouts on the US foreign policy, as a Xinhua commentary noted — in the new circumstances, “Obama is more likely to forge an alliance when dealing with global challenges such as the Syria crisis, the nuclear issues in Iran and on the Korean Peninsula… [and] it could also serve as a foundation for his peace efforts for the Middle East.”
Arguably, Obama would see the need to carry Russia along. He put the phone call through to Putin on the same day the deep spending reductions in the US budget known as the “sequester” automatically kicked in. The Pentagon budget is expected to take a big hit — slash of around $ 46 billion, which Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warns would put at risk “all of our missions.”
– March 2, 2013