Obama needs Putin as foreign policy ally despite misdoings

Text of report by Italian leading privately-owned centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, on 14 January

[Commentary by former Ambassador Ferdiando Salleo: "America Between Devil and Deep Blue Sea"]

Vladimir Putin is actively preparing for his third term as president, which the March election will not fail to confer on him, maybe after a harmless ballot, and, as the Saud dynasty has done in Saudi Arabia, is seeking to use largesse, social security benefits, public works, and a promise of unspecified reforms to quell, or at least to muffle, the widespread protest that is not only economic, dictated by mounting inequality, in Russia, but is political as well and reflects the middle classes’ and the intellectuals’ discontent with the regime at the Kremlin. Resorting to public spending is the privilege of governments rich in oil and gas revenue that pay little heed to international opinion, but Russia is no longer the Soviet Union.

The unrest in Russia and the criticism of Putin are once again attracting attention worldwide, and in the US election campaign. Alongside the nightmare of the ayatollahs’ atomic programme, the contestants in the Republican primaries are reawakening in deepest America the gut hostility to the Russian bear that has never faded away, not so much now in terms of the nuclear threat as, more nobly, on account of the human rights breaches that are undoubtedly been perpetrated, the gag on the media and the Duma, and the strong discontent in evidence in the demonstrations, which are being seen – not without grounds, but with profound differences – as on a par with the Arab spring. Taken together with the criticisms on domestic policy, the attack on the White House on foreign policy focuses on the allegation of incompetence in terms of homeland security and of giving ground on democratic values, and on the cut in military spending.

With his European ally paralysed by concern for the survival of its system and his Japanese ally inert for years, Barack Obama’s foreign policy is having to go into this tough year leading up to the presidential election in November caught between the ceaseless turbulence of the Arab and Middle Eastern world, with a crisis looming with Iran, the outcome of all of which is unknown, and the silent, inexorable advance in Asia and the Pacific of China, which is meanwhile arming and going into space. Now, with the unknown quantity of developments in Russia, the inevitable call on Obama to isolate Putin and freeze relations with Moscow is emerging, at the very time when cooperation is notching up progress on the way to stabilizing at least the traditional front of geopolitical friction.

The White House has anticipated the move and, albeit asserting its freedom to criticize the Russian situation, is confirming that it intends to pursue and broaden foreign policy cooperation with Moscow. On the security front, following the conclusion of the "new START" [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] on the drastic reduction of the strategic arsenals, there is a joint drive against proliferation setting out to denuclearize North Korea and restrict Teheran’s move in the direction of the atomic weapon and long-range missiles, while, significantly, it is being acknowledged that Moscow has been performing a role for peace in the Middle East. The controversy over the US antimissile system, which the Kremlin is toughly opposing, also features in complex negotiations that might end in a compromise, as part of an overall security package. However, the deal that is taking shape extends beyond security: It leaves aside the disputes over the gas pipelines, but paves the way for economic and trading developments in the wake of Moscow’s imminent accession to the WTO. Be that as it may, persuading this Congress to abolish the long-standing restrictions on trade will be no easy matter.

If this line is endorsed by the Kremlin, an acknowledgement of responsibility for world stability dictates a realistic policy that identifies joint interests and backs global interests to both Russians and Americans, who no longer form a strategic duopoly but are still leading security players. To the extent that this policy heralds a strategic design, the most hazardous year for stability may bring a sense of partnership in a world governance open to the major powers. Whether it can be achieved will then depend on the toughness of the US election campaign; whether it can be sustained will depend on Putin and the developments on the Russian home front.

Source: La Repubblica, Rome, in Italian 14 Jan 12

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