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Michael Weiss

Putin's Got America Right Where He Wants It

Last week's G-20 summit was the first time U.S. President Barack Obama had seen his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since 2009. An account of their long, loveless meeting on the sidelines of the conference, along with photographs of their unhappy tête-a-tête, was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. The real story belonged in the obituary section: The "reset," Obama's attempt to mend relations with Putin's Russia, is dead. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed it.

But the two countries' fundamental disagreement about what to do about Assad, the dictator whose bloody attempts to suppress a popular revolt has resulted in the deaths of 14,000 Syrians, was only the last straw for a policy that has been on life support since its inception. On a vast array of issues -- ranging from human rights to Iran to the territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states -- Russian behavior has consistently been a thorn in the side of the United States and its allies. The reset only provided Obama with a justification to cover his retreat in the face of Russia's advance.

Let's start with Syria, where Moscow has vetoed two attempts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. In the case of the May 25 Houla massacre, where over 100 civilians were murdered in cold blood, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that "both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people." This injected moral equivalence where none existed, since U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that pro-regime shabbiha militias were likely responsible.

And yet, the Obama administration continues to try to woo the Kremlin. The White House's latest dead-letter hope is that a "Yemen model" of political transition in Syria, referring to the negotiated departure of former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, might find favor in the Kremlin. It will not. The Kremlin is joined at the hip with the Assad regime: Lavrov, for instance, told Ekho Moskvy radio last week that asking Assad to step down is "infeasible" because the latter simply will not do so.

Michael Weiss is co-chair of the Henry Jackson Society's Russia Studies Center.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on June 28th, 2012.


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