Many analysts who believe Russia’s Vladimir Putin has developed into an implacable foe of the United States are convinced that when the Russian president comes to speak at the United Nations, we can expect an even harsher speech than the attack on U.S. foreign policy he delivered in Munich back in 2007 and which continues to reverberate among foreign policy analysts around the world.
However, there are signals coming from Moscow that this may not be the case. Many in Moscow and Washington are convinced that it is in neither nation’s interest to let relations continue to deteriorate. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly suggested the possibility of a personal or informal meeting between President Putin and President Obama while Mr. Putin is in New York might be worth some consideration. He followed with an even more optimistic statement that “Our American colleagues are sending us signals that they want to continue to maintain contacts if there is such a proposal on their part, I think our president will give it constructive consideration.”
The White House issued a statement when Mr. Lavrov’s remarks reached Washington that “currently there are no plans for a personal meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States in the foreseeable future, and no preparations are underway for such a meeting.” Read one way this reaction could be seen as a rebuff, but it could also be read as leaving the door open.
Maria Zakharova, who is the head of Russia’s foreign ministry press office had this to say: “The path, onto which the world is being pushed, including by Washington (I have in mind the path of sanctions, antagonism, absence of dialogue), this is not a transition to a new state of affairs; it is a path to nowhere, a dead-end.”
Still, despite this, mildly speaking, not very friendly exchange, there is a chance that being a pretty good player on the international geopolitical chessboard Mr. Putin will choose to avoid harsh rhetoric and use the opportunity to address an audience that will include many world leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis to present a positive agenda and offer his vision on how to address the most pressing problems facing humanity.
It is well known that whatever the differences between the two nations, Mr. Putin considers the continuing terrorist threat something that must be addressed. Thus, he can be expected to promote the idea of creating the International Anti-Terrorist Organization (IATO). International coordination among nations threatened directly or indirectly by terrorism and the by-products of the anarchy that so often follows in its wake is an admirable and shared goal. Among the by-products of terrorism are the waves of refugees flooding Europe and while military strikes continue, the threat seems to most observers to be growing.
Thus far, the West has chosen to “go it alone” in trying to stem the tide of terrorism, but hasn’t met with the success Western leaders have expected or promised and might benefit by working more closely with Moscow. The two nations differ most profoundly in how to deal with the chaos in Syria with the West focused on removing Bashar Assad who for better or worse has a claim on Russian support as a longtime Russian ally.
Mr. Obama may wish that he could deal with someone other than Mr. Putin, but the Russian president remains quite popular at home and Washington has to accept that both he and his country are players who can neither be ignored or patronized. He is a potential ally in the war against terror and should be treated as such.
Many in Moscow, however, believe that some in the United States dream of what American foreign policy experts like to call “regime change” in Russia so they can deal with a Russian leader other than Mr. Putin. Dreams are one thing; reality is quite another. To allow their dislike of the Russian leader to dictate policy in a world where misunderstandings can lead to war is the kind of dream that might easily morph into a nightmare. This is especially true when some in Moscow blame the United States and those who despise Mr. Putin with responsibility for all their nation’s current troubles.
Fortunately, there are also people in Moscow and Washington who seek a new start; who realize that while great nations will often differ as each pursues its own national interests, we live in a world where it is incumbent upon great nations and great leaders to look not just to their unique interest, but to those they share with others. It is to be hoped that Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama fall into this camp. They don’t have to spend their vacations with each other or play golf every weekend, but for the sake of the peoples they lead, they do have to work with each other.
• Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.