Worldview: It's time for Obama to tell Putin 'nyet'

June's chill: Presidents Obama and Putin last month.
June's chill: Presidents Obama and Putin last month. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 22, 2013

In the latest political show trial in Moscow, Alexei Navalny, the anticorruption activist and charismatic opposition leader, was sentenced to five years in jail - for corruption.

Apparently there is no move too cynical for Russian leader and former KGB operative Vladimir Putin. Only last week a dead man - Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower who was jailed and beaten to death in prison - was judged guilty of the very embezzlement scheme he had exposed (which was committed, in reality, by top government officials). Then there's Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate, who has been repeatedly jailed in another series of show trials - because he mounted a political challenge to Putin.

These trials - even more than the games Putin is playing with the American leaker and asylum-seeker Edward Snowden - should signal to President Obama that it's time to cancel a planned summit with Putin in September. The same mind-set that drives the Russian leader to lock up any political opponent ensures that a summit would be a waste of time.

Just look at the case of Navalny, Russia's most promising opposition leader and a new kind of Russian politician. He came to prominence after mounting a series of Internet investigations of his country's staggering official corruption.

When I interviewed the tall, blond, 35-year-old Navalny in Moscow last year, he told me: "This regime is based on corruption." He was referring to the massive wealth funneled to Kremlin favorites and the disrespect for law that pervades the system. "I focus on this issue," he said, "and that's why people appreciate my efforts." Navalny's slogan was: "No to robbers, no to thieves, yes to citizenship."

This crusade made Navalny an icon for Moscow's growing middle class.

The anticorruption campaigner was set to run for mayor of Moscow in September. No question, the incumbent (a favorite of the Kremlin's) would win. But a strong Navalny showing might have embarrassed Putin - and still could, since his name is already on the ballot.

So first they jailed him, then they suddenly freed him after 24 hours, pending appeal. "Maybe they feared more people would vote for him because he was imprisoned," says Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan, who has written books on Putin and Khodorkovsky. However, at any moment, Navalny could be tossed back in jail.

The Navalny tale illustrates Putin's blatant indifference to domestic and international opinion - both are critical of the Navalny verdict. Russian polls show that 56 percent of Russians believe Navalny's arrest was either aimed at halting his anticorruption crusade or preventing him from running for mayor.

But Putin, confident he can manipulate the Russian system, doesn't care.

Which brings us to the question of whether Obama should cancel the summit in Moscow, where he is scheduled to stop before attending a September meeting of leaders of the G-20 (the major industrialized and developing nations) in St. Petersburg.

Just as Putin imagines he can manipulate Russians, he seems to believe he can manipulate Obama as well.

After Putin was reelected president early last year, Obama attempted (for a second time) to reset U.S.-Russian relations. Yet, in a put-down to Obama, Putin declined to attend a May 2012 meeting of the leaders of the G-8 (eight of the most powerful industrial countries), which was held at Camp David. The excuse he gave was so silly as to be demeaning.

The White House, and Secretary of State John Kerry, has invested much effort in urging Moscow to help mediate a compromise solution to the Syrian civil war, yet Putin has steadfastly backed President Bashar al-Assad. Obama dearly wants to negotiate another round of nuclear arms cuts with Putin, but the Russian has made clear he is not interested.

"There is nothing on the [Moscow summit] agenda that they can make progress on," says the Brookings Institution's Fiona Hill, coauthor of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. "Why would Obama bother going?"

Indeed, when the two men met at a G-8 summit last month in Northern Ireland, Putin's demeanor was so frigid that video clips of the scene became grist for TV comics. A summit in Moscow, says Hill, "would be just another exercise in parody and disillusionment."

Meantime, the Russian leader continues to toy with Snowden at Sheremetyevo Airport - cynically using him to decry American "human-rights violations." There's no chance that Putin will hand him over.

Yet Putin clearly still wants the September summit. He has said "squabbles" over Snowden shouldn't derail bilateral relations.

The new Russian tsar wants to project himself as a global leader and Russia as a rising superpower (despite its shrinking population and third-world-style economy that depends on the export of natural resources). Although he thinks America is declining, he still wants a photo-op that shows him as an equal of the U.S. president.

Isn't it time for the White House to administer a reality check? Isn't it time for Obama to stop playing by Putin's rules?

There are plenty of transparent excuses - busy schedule, daughter's school play - for bowing out of a pointless summit. And Vice President Biden could certainly fill in for Obama at the G-20 meeting.

Putin seems to believe that Obama will come calling, no matter how many times he insults him. It's long past time to show him he is wrong.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com. Follow her blog at www.inquirer.com/worldview.

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