Obama to Putin: It’s not me, it’s you

If anyone was hoping that Obama’s address to the United Nations would shed light on when – and how – sanctions against Russia might come to an end, they will have been disappointed.

Despite reports in the Russian media that Obama ‘named the terms’ under which Russia could begin to come out from under sanctions, in reality he did nothing of the sort. What he said was,

Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.

There are two ways to interpret this. One is to conclude that the jury is still out on Russia among Western policymakers, that sanctions fatigue may be beginning to set in, and thus that Obama needed language suitably vague and nebulous in order to satisfy the hawks that the pressure is still on, while still allowing for a climb-down in the not too distant future. That would probably be the standard ‘politics-as-usual’ interpretation, and is likely the one to which most commentators will adhere, as it gels with the general line about Obama as wishy-washy and the West as weak-willed.

But there is another interpretation that, at least to me, seems more compelling. By saying that sanctions will be lifted “if Russia takes that path”, Obama is saying that this is about a lot more than Ukraine. This is about choosing a broad policy course that puts Moscow in alignment with how the West thinks the world should be run. (I’m not making a judgment here about whether the West is right. Obama, of course, is making a judgment, but that’s his job.)

The text, taken literally, suggests that the Obama Administration is after a much more fundamental restructuring of the relationship with Russia, and Washington is willing to wait as long as it takes Moscow to get there. To be sure, Europe’s patience may be more limited, and Obama speaks only for the Americans (and even then, not for all parts of the policy establishment). But it puts the standoff between Washington and Moscow on a very different footing: even as Lavrov is telling the Americans to butt out of the Donbas, Obama is saying that this isn’t about the Donbas, this isn’t about Crimea, or even about Ukraine more generally. This, Obama is saying, is about Russia. Which, of course, it is.

I don’t know whether this is the right interpretation or not. I’m not sure Obama knows which interpretation is closer to reality. And the reality, of course, will turn out to be infinitely more complex than can be reflected here. But, at least for the moment – and the moment looks set to be prolonged – the result of that complexity is that the West is unable to set out clear terms under which Moscow can come out from under the sanctions and get back to something approaching ‘normal’ relations with Europe and the U.S.

The question I have is for Moscow: Does Moscow realize the opportunity this presents? Does Moscow have the imagination and wherewithal to present to the West a vision of a different, constructive relationship, one that might look to Obama like “that path”? Moscow could, if it wanted to, seize this moment to build something genuinely new. But there is no evidence that it wants to, and so the West will continue, slowly, to determine the terms of Russia’s engagement with the rest of the world. Is that what Putin is after?

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