Dan Simpson: Get busy with Russia

Now is a good time to work with Putin on a host of issues

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Now that the Winter Olympics in Sochi is over, it is well past time for President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team to improve U.S. relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, difficult though he is.

First of all, in spite of dire advance predictions, Russia did a first-class, bang-up (bad metaphor) job hosting the Olympics. All of the American media’s grisly previews of potential problems were proved wrong. The facilities were ready, apart from some early water-color problems in the journalists’ quarters. The Russians were apparently nice as hosts, belying the old stories about traditionally surly service staff. There were no reports I saw of mean Russian behavior toward gays.

Among demonstrators, only the Pussy Rioters got roughed up, although, at the risk of seeming to be even more insensitive than I am, I would note that they probably would have been disappointed if they had been unable to provoke an incident.

Most importantly, there was no trouble from dissidents in Russia’s Islamic republics — Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Sochi was ringed with security forces, but there was concern that Mr. Putin’s enemies, seeking publicity, would carry out attacks in other cities, including Volgograd, where they had struck recently.

I am not sure why this did not occur. Thinking a minute about how things work in Russia, I would be tempted to guess that Mr. Putin’s government had talked to his opponents in advance and, perhaps, paid them off to stay quiet during the Olympics. If that was what occurred, it was a good investment. They may blow something up fairly soon just to show the world they are still around.

In any case, there is still a lot of business to be done between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin to make the world a better place for many of its inhabitants. In fact, although one wouldn’t want to get carried away with the idea, Russia’s success in hosting the monumental Olympic games probably is a reason to take it more seriously than Washington sometimes does.

Perhaps it’s because some of the foreign-affairs dinosaurs are still hanging around Washington, but it is a fact that there remains some sentiment there that America won the Cold War and the Russians lost the Cold War and therefore we are not obliged to fool around with them. That always was a stupid position to take, starting in 1990.

The Russians can be very proud and must be taken seriously. Russia comprises nine time zones, running from Europe to the Pacific Ocean in the east, for example, with a population of 144 million. Why annoy them, sometimes just to make Ronald Reagan look good?

Here are some areas where we have serious business to conduct with the Russians:

1. Syria: America’s advocacy of the Syrian rebels against the Bashar Assad regime is looking increasingly foolish. Mr. Putin threw Mr. Obama a lifeline in enabling him through the chemical-weapons-destruction ploy to avoid getting his head handed him by the U.S. Congress, which would have refused him permission for the United States to attack Syria. However, Mr. Obama needs now to require Mr. Putin to hammerlock the Syrians to carry through on their chemical-weapons pledge. Then the two presidents can talk about how they can cooperate to put Syria back together as a stable force in the Middle East, to the advantage of all parties, including Israel.

2. Ukraine: This is a burning issue still, although it seems to be tailing off in terms of violence. Mr. Putin had to be thinking about Ukraine as he watched the games in nearby Sochi while the flames grew higher in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. His favorite president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was driven from office, and Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, “warned” Russia on U.S. Sunday television not to intervene militarily. (It is hard to imagine what the United States would do other than bluster if Mr. Putin did send troops into Ukraine; Russia has a naval base in Ukraine at Sevastopol.)

Ukraine remains plagued by economic woes — imminent default, high unemployment and corruption — as well as ethnic and religious divisions within its population of 46 million. The European Union (egged on by the United States) and Russia each have hold of one of Ukraine’s arms and are tugging them in opposite directions. This serves no useful purpose and, if the result were to be a division of the country, would be an avoidable tragedy. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin need to meet, agree that neither wants Ukraine torn apart and decide what to do about it, in coordination.

3. China: Consistent with Mr. Obama’s ‘‘pivot to Asia” it would make sense for him to talk with Mr. Putin about China and the region, including the ticklish question of how to obtain reasonable behavior from North Korea, which has a border with Russia, nuclear weapons and an inexperienced leader.

There was a time when America undertook some useful three-cornered diplomacy involving China and the Soviet Union. In fact, one of the driving motives — apart from realism — that prompted Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to open the U.S. door to China was to rattle the Russians. Mr. Putin might find it interesting and even flattering to be invited into that sort of triangular relationship again by Mr. Obama.

4. Other topics: Matters of common American-Russian interest also include Russia’s hosting of U.S. analyst Edward J. Snowden, advancing the nuclear- and economic-sanctions negotiations with Iran and the crucial Israeli-Palestinian negotiations underway.

The next scheduled opportunity for an Obama-Putin meeting is the G-8 summit, which Russia will host in Sochi in June. Mr. Obama could go early or stay late, and do some good work if his advisers allow him to.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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