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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Obama Says He’ll Continue To Engage Putin

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Barack Obama says he will continue to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though they’ve “hit a wall” in their relationship.

Obama says although Putin is rejecting the idea that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his people, he’s quote, “always hopeful” that he’ll change his position.

Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press that Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on military strikes against the Assad regime if it is proved that regime forces used poison gas on civilians.

But he said it was “ludicrous” that the regime would use chemical weapons at a time when rebels were in the defensive. He warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria.




Well, let's listen now to some of what President Obama said about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now there's no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we've kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues.

HOBSON: And as Robin and Ari just mentioned, a lot of issues to get into here. We also heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last couple of days. He's been speaking out on Russia's state-run Channel One and to the Associated Press. He's warning the West against going it alone in Syria. But he also said that Russia does not exclude giving support to a U.N. resolution to take military action in Syria if he, Vladimir Putin, is convinced by evidence that Assad's regime used chemical weapons.

Fiona Hill joins us now from the studios at the Brookings Institution, where she's director of the Center on the United States and Europe. She's also co-author of a new book called "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." Fiona, welcome.

FIONA HILL: Thank you very much, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, let's start with what we heard from President Obama today about the U.S. relationship in Russia. How did those comments strike you?

HILL: Well, it's that reference to hit a wall in terms of additional progress, and I'm afraid that that wall is Vladimir Putin himself. You notice that the president was very careful in sketching out the idea that we still have a lot of common interests between the United States and Russia. He was very specific about referring to Russia itself, and that's certainly true. There are many areas that the U.S. and Russia have to work on, not just ones that they can work on together.

But the real problem right now is working specifically with Vladimir Putin because he, himself, the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has made it quite difficult for the United States. He has tightened that (unintelligible) on those red lines in the respect the president of the United States drew around himself on issues like Syria.

And right now, unfortunately for President Obama, he finds himself somewhat wrong-footed in the relationship, the relationship between the two of them.

HOBSON: And yet in the interview that President Putin gave to the Associated Press, he comes off somewhat conciliatory. I want to just read a quote from this. We work, he says, we argue about some issues. We are humans. Sometimes one of us gets vexed, but I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems. So what do you make of the tone from President Putin in these interviews?

HILL: Well, this is classic Vladimir Putin. He's always very careful about what he says about specific individuals. You recall that he was similarly careful and quite full of prayers for George Bush, who at times you could see was really irritating Vladimir Putin by not coming through on various issues that Putin thought that he had promised, a whole range of high-priority foreign policy issues.

And yet every time he was interviewed about George Bush, he would stress their close personal relationships, how much he enjoyed working with Bush. And he uses very similar terms when he refers to Obama because he doesn't want to completely and utterly destroy the relationship with the United States or with Obama himself.

Obama could still turn out for Putin to be an asset on certain issues. But right now he wants to have Obama continue to look as if he's the one making risky moves, he's the one making the bad decisions and to let other people make those impressions for themselves.

Putin doesn't really need to point that out. But he has been needling Obama. You notice that he himself made that reference, Putin, to Obama being a Nobel laureate. Who knows whether the Swedish journalist actually picked up on that comment that came from Putin?

But Putin is putting Obama into places that he knows that Obama is very uncomfortable.

HOBSON: Well, what about Putin's stance on Syria? We've heard all about the various factors at play here. There's an arms trade with Syria and Russia. There is obviously the issue of U.S.-Russian relations. The Russians say they don't like the U.S. playing games with the region in and around Syria. What do you think is the real factor that is leading Mr. Putin to be so against a strike in Syria?

HILL: Well, all of those factors come into play, and I think after Putin saw the aftermath in Libya, and he makes a point of bringing that up on many occasions, and he's seen the aftermath in Iraq and elsewhere, in Afghanistan, he doesn't want to see another U.S. intervention. So he has been setting out right from the outset to try to prevent this from happening.

Now it looked at the end of August as if he'd actually reconciled to the fact that some kind of international intervention was inevitable. That was before the U.K. parliamentary decision and then Obama's decision to put the whole issue before Congress. Before then, as I said, Putin looked like he'd reconciled himself, he was going to try to stay out of it as much as he could, try to mitigate any of the blowback to Russia for all of the reasons that you've just let out.

Now he sees that he might have an advantage here that he's going to try to press into leverage. He can probably turn this whole situation to some kind of win-win for Moscow by, in fact, deterring Obama by all of the different things that he's trying to orchestrate from taking action, certainly taking action all alone; or then having the United States completely isolated, not just Obama look isolated, if it decides to press ahead in a way that the United States seemed to be trending in the opposite direction at the end of August.

The end of August, the U.S. seemed to have the high road. Now it seems that everyone else is moving in a different direction, and it's Putin who looks like he's the high road. He's stressing international principles, international law, international (unintelligible). He's not saying that he won't do anything if this very high standard of proof is put forward, but he's obviously playing on all of the mistakes of the past here.

HOBSON: Fiona Hill, I've just got about 10 seconds left, but let me ask you, if you were to rate the U.S.-Russian relationship at this point on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the strongest and one the weakest, what would you do? What would you say?

HILL: Well, it's at a pretty weak position right now. I'd put it somewhere between two and four. But it's not irretrievable, and that's the message here. But we're going to have to play very carefully things out from now.

HOBSON: Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. Her new book is "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." Fiona, thank you so much.

HILL: Thank you, Jeremy.


A couple other stories we're following, the Texas National Guard says it won't offer benefits to same-sex spouses despite that order from the Pentagon. Also a fight over a proposed iron ore mine in Wisconsin has spilled into the woods. We'll hear these and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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