Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin sat across from each other at the G8 meeting last week in Northern Ireland, but their positions on Syria could not be further apart. The G8 statement on Syria that came out from the summit was a triumph for Putin and also a victory for what I would call “consensus through cowardice.” Getting rid of the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad is not one of the document’s pledges. Incredibly, al-Assad is not even mentioned—no doubt at the insistence of his greatest supporter, Putin. For the sake of a hypocritical display of unity, Obama and the others signed a worthless statement that could have been written in the Kremlin.
Since the Russian connections of the Boston Marathon bombers came to light, the myth of common ground between Putin and the West has received a lot of lip service on both sides. It is useful to Putin both at home and abroad to maintain the illusion that he wants greater integration with Europe and better relations with the United States. In both places there have been recent moves to sanction the Kremlin and Putin’s thugs for human rights violations and criminal activity. Putin needs to show his allies he can still protect them.
This does not mean Putin will cede any ground on anything that matters to him, at least not while Obama and the rest fail to apply real pressure. The latest evidence is the bizarre affair of Edward Snowden, the American NSA employee who leaked classified information about domestic surveillance programs. Then he got on a flight from Hong Kong to Russia and according to reports he’s been sitting in Sheremetyevo airport since Sunday trying to figure out his next move. The U.S. wants Snowden extradited for espionage, and when someone else wants something it’s a chance for Putin to show what “cooperation” really means to him.
First came Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statements that Snowden wasn’t technically in Russian territory while in the airport and, therefore, was outside of Russian jurisdiction. Of course Putin feels he has jurisdiction to send tanks into Georgia and military personnel into Syria, and Kremlin critics in London have the odd habit of being murdered. But not the Moscow airport—it’s out of reach! Even that legal loophole expired days ago, however, so now it’s just a matter of Putin wanting to squeeze the most attention and annoyance out of this little accident.
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