Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Putatively Putin

Gamal Nkrumah picks through the latest diplomatic spat between Washington and Moscow

Al-Ahram Weekly

A couple of countervailing factors could kick in to counterpoise the tension between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the weeks ahead.

Recently, Obama uncharacteristically described Putin as the “bored kid in the back of the classroom”. Obama said when the two leaders meet “the press likes to focus on body language”, and Putin has “that kind of slouch”. “There’s always been some tension in the US-Russian relationship,” Obama confessed.

Nonetheless, “there’s been a lot of good work done” between the US and Russia and “a lot more will be done”, he said.

Blood under the bridge? Obama added, perhaps in retrospect, that the two leaders “don’t have a bad personal” relationship.

Contradictory statements from one of the most eloquent statesmen on earth. So what prompted this faux pas?

It fell to Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, to reveal the clue to Obama’s sus linguae. Obama cancelled a scheduled summit with Putin in Moscow. And an uppity Ushakov told reporters in Moscow that Obama’s decision reflected America’s inability to develop relations with Moscow on an “equal basis”. The US sees itself as the sole global superpower. Russia differs and altercates. It is too clever by half.

The Kremlin voiced much consternation over Obama’s decision to cancel his Moscow summit with Putin, but made it crystal clear that Obama’s spiel did not leave Moscow in the lurch. The ubiquitous Ushakov stressed that Russia remains ready to cooperate with the US on bilateral and international issues. In short, Moscow did not make much of Obama’s song and dance.

Obama’s comments at a White House news conference shortly after the “two plus two” talks in Washington between American and Russian foreign and defence ministers intended to bridge differences on issues including missile defence, the Syria conflict and human rights, demonstrate that Washington and Moscow are obliged to cooperate whether they like it or not.

So what was the real issue? Washington is furious over Moscow’s role in assisting globetrotting National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden escape US prosecution.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “grave concern” over Snowden’s allegations that Washington had hacked computers in China. Russia, too, is suspicious about US intentions.

Washington has persistently criticised Russia’s human rights record. “Why should the US expect restraint and understanding from Russia?” explained Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower house of parliament, the Duma.

Washington accused Snowden, an ex-NSA systems analyst, of leaking highly secretive details about the agency’s surveillance programmes. The Snowden affair is reminiscent of the case of the founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organisation, Julian Assange. Like the Assange affair, the Snowden affair represents an affront to US global hegemony.

What all this points to is America losing its grip on global affairs. The case of Private Bradley Manning, convicted by a US military court of leaking key secrets to WikiLeaks, highlights Washington’s growing insecurity. American citizens are consciously undermining Washington’s overzealous security hang-ups. Who is to say whether Snowden, Manning or Assange’s acts constitute a breech of the US Patriot Act and the Fourth Amendment?

On the face of it, both Manning and Snowden broke US law by disclosing secrets they were under oath to keep. Yet, Washington reneged and permitted Snowden’s father to secure the necessary documents to visit his son in Russia. The elder Snowden also openly announced that he plans to discuss with his son and his lawyers how he could fight espionage charges. The Russians are surely reeling with laughter.

“As a father, I want my son to come home if I believe that the justice system is going to be applied correctly,” Lon Snowden told reporters.

His son’s exact whereabouts in Russia remain unknown. The timing of the visit from Lon Snowden is to date uncertain as he declined to elaborate further.

There are grave reservations in Russia and elsewhere that the linchpin of the American security system appears to be the “secret court”. Even in open court, how would Edward Snowden get a fair trial when the US president, no less, has been “absolutely irresponsible” — in the words of Lon Snowden — in describing his actions?

At any rate, Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum is more evidence that Washington’s global power is on the wane. Obama scuttled plans for a one-on-one meeting with Putin. Obama, however, is due to meet Putin at next month’s G-20 summit in Saint Petersburg.

In comments on the delayed meeting, Obama conceded: given “a number of emerging differences” it is “probably appropriate for us to take a pause”. This doesn’t mean, however, that the pause will last long.

The verbal sparring has emphasised that Russia and the US must relate to each other on an equal footing. The two countries are seeking to build on cooperation in areas of shared interests, such as curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities. Behind the scenes, however, it is clear that — at least in Washington — a whole other strategy is being pursued, of which the substance of the Snowden leaks is proof.


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