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After skipping last month’s political G8 summit at Camp David, Russian President Vladimir Putin is heading for an economic summit of the G20 nations in Los Cabos, Mexico. But the Russian president will be hard-pressed to completely sidestep political issues. Media attention in Mexico will most likely focus on Putin's meeting with President Barack Obama, where issues like the Syrian crisis or Iran's nuclear ambition are expected to loom large. Despite mutual exchanges of diplomatic courtesies, the bilateral relationship has been rocky, and not just over Iran and Syria.
The planned meeting between Putin and Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit will be high on promises and low on delivery, analysts say. "Both presidents are likely to set out mutual expectations but will have a hard time developing mutual trust," said independent political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. “This is what you get when two unequal partners are engaged in diplomatic talks.”
The grudge that Russia holds against the United States is more psychological than political, Belkovsky said. Despite a deluge of other problems, Putin’s priority, he said, is to maintain external attributes of a super-power nation, such as Russia’s nuclear capacity and membership in UN Security Council. “Unfortunately, those attributes are fading fast, and this is making Moscow both furious and frustrated," Belkovsky said.
Even as talks between Iran and six other world powers kicked off in Moscow on Monday, political observers note that Russia’s negotiating power is weak. The latest talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program came as Iran faces the imposition of a European oil embargo and American banking sanctions that could severely damage its economy. With American presidential elections looming, Obama would likely want Russia to ramp up pressure on Tehran to curb its nuclear program and prevent a preemptive military strike against Iran by Israel.
Putin has warned against such attacks in February, saying that the consequences would be "truly catastrophic" and their real scale "impossible to imagine." However, beyond such warnings there appears to be little else that Moscow could do. "The Kremlin's ability and capacity to influence policies and actions in Teheran have long been diminished," said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies. "Under president Putin Russia offered Teheran a deal in 2006 to enrich and process Iranian nuclear fuel in Russia, but the deal failed to materialize. Iranian relations with Russia remain cautious at best, and Teheran is unlikely to listen to Moscow's entreaties."
With the threat of civil war hanging over Syria, the Putin-Obama mini summit is also likely to focus on ways to avoid a deadly crisis in this Mideast nation. However, recent accusations by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia, a longstanding ally of Syria, has been supplying Assad's regime with attack helicopters, provides a bleak backdrop for such a discussion. Russia still believes it was tricked into supporting a resolution to protect civilians in Libya, only to see it used to provide cover for airstrikes to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. “Such lingering suspicion won’t help Obama to persuade the Kremlin to back another U.S. effort through the United Nations,” Makarkin said.
Besides international politics there are other lingering irritants that threaten the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship. One of them emerged this week, when Russia announced on Sunday that it has barred 11 serving and former U.S. administration officials for human rights abuses at facilities including Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The ban on entry to Russia was enacted last year in retaliation for a U.S. visa ban for 11 Russian officials accused of playing a role in the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, president Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov said.
Russia has warned of further steps if Congress passes a law that would impose U.S. travel and financial curbs on any official abusing human rights in Russia, including all 60 people suspected of being involved in Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow jail in 2009. Ushakov criticized what he called an “anti- Russian” step that would complicate ties as Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama prepare to meet in Mexico.
The Obama administration has not made much progress on another sore point in Russian-U.S. relations: the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. Obama asked Congress last month to repeal the Cold War era amendment, which is limiting trade between Russia and the United States. However, a more cogent reason for the latest push is that the United States may risk losing out on increased exports to Russia once the country formally joins the World Trade Organization this year. But even that argument does not seem to hold water before the American legislators. A bipartisan group of American senators recently made a repeal of the amendments conditional on imposing sanctions on Russian officials for human rights violations.
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