It was no surprise that, after speaking in private for two hours in Northern Ireland, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin looked “tense and uncomfortable,” or, as the pool report put it, “serious and unsmiling.” Not only did the meeting come on the heels of a year and a half of Russia cynically ratcheting up anti-American sentiments—and harassing Obama’s ambassador—in the country, or growing tensions over divergent foreign policy, it was also soured by a blast of Sunday news. First, Edward Snowden leaked information that, in 2009, the NSA had spied on former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev while he had been at a G20 meeting in London (I'll refrain from calling that a "revelation"). Then came allegations that Putin had pinched the Super Bowl ring of Patriots owner Bob Kraft.
But what really killed the mood at the G8 Summit was Syria. Going into the meeting, the U.S. finally decided a red line had been crossed and that it would provide some military assistance to Syrian rebels. (There were also reports of F16s and Patriot missiles staying put in neighboring Jordan, potentially to aid rebels.) Russia had reacted angrily, with Putin warning that America had just declared its support for terrorists and human offal eaters.
Indeed, the conflict in Syria overshadowed all other G8 initiatives—it took up half of last night’s working dinner—and, in practice, what it looked like was the U.S. rallying the other, more hesitant members of the original G7 and pushing on the newcomer: Russia. (Russia was allowed into the group in 1997, despite its still flagging economy, a way to co-opt a former foe with positive reinforcement.) Yet Russia, as always, remains a stick in the mud: Despite permitting the condemnation of the use of chemical weapons, it seems that the language in the official G8 communique condemning “all human rights violations and abuses in Syria, committed by anyone” came from Moscow.
I’ve written before about why Russia has been such been such a fierce opponent of intervention in Syria; the reasons range from its very legitimate fear of incubating terrorism, to protecting its sphere of influence, to sticking it to America. Often, the Russians come off looking obstreperous and hypocritical, especially when their opposition to intervention is coupled with arms shipments to Assad and delaying the Geneva peace talks—July, Putin reportedly said, is “too early”—while Assad and Hezbollah make gains militarily, thereby tipping the outcome peace talks before they even start.
However, the biggest problem with Russia’s obstreperousness, I’d argue, is that it makes us not take it seriously. If Russia cautions against arming rebels that are increasingly dominated by extremists, there’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction in certain quarters of Washington: those fucking Russians. And, yes, that’s fair. Those fucking Russians are part of the reason the conflict has gotten so bad to begin with, and why the forces fighting Assad have become increasingly radicalized: Had the Russians not defended Assad so staunchly back when it was just peaceful protests in Damascus, maybe Syria would have 93,000 more people walking undemolished streets today. But by dismissing Russian concerns out of hand, we risk doing what the Russians do—if the Americans are for it, we must be against it—and turning the whole thing into a kind of Cold War mobius strip. (And I’m talking here about the discourse surrounding Syria, not so much about the White House's policy, which has been beyond cautious in dealing with the Syrian civil war.)
We also risk overlooking the merits of their arguments, however much they’re buried in their own Cold War shadowboxing mumbo jumbo. They have been right before, you know. Like, on Iraq.