Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

In a recent post on the Snowden Case, Dmitri Trenin of
Carnegie’s Moscow Institute asks why US relations with China – America’s real
rival – are so much less contentious than they are with Russia.  It’s a good question.  Is it the differences in political cultures
as Trenin posits?  Or something else in terms
of Snowden?  Did, in this case, the
Chinese just outsmart the Russians by getting what they wanted from Snowden and
then passing that hot potato over to Moscow leaving the Russians holding the

Former CIA officer Milt Bearden chalks up the Snowden affair
to a win for China and something of a tie between Russia and the US.  He also points out that the US does not return
defectors – and for that matter neither do the Russians.  Bearden should know. So, he argues that even
if the Russians had been willing to hand Snowden over to US authorities,
something he thinks would have been highly unlikely, the US would not have had
someone handy to trade in the tit-for-tat games the two intelligence services have
played with each other for decades.

On the rocks

In fact, US-Russian relations have been rocky for some time
– Putin was never America’s favorite regardless of president in the White
House.  His cold and clammy KGB
personality was itself a turn off – George W Bush never understood the man despite
his empty gestures to the contrary; Obama was clearly more comfortable dealing
with Dmitri Medvedev when he was president. 
Like it or not, personal relations between leaders are important to good
relations between countries.

It’s been clear since before his arrival, that Michael
McFaul, Obama’s choice for Ambassador to Moscow, would not have an easy time of
it even though the negotiation of a new START treaty had originally cleared the
air in the latest reset game.  One can
argue that this is because of McFaul’s contacts with opposition leaders –
people he had known before setting foot in Spaso House – but such contacts have
been the norm for American Embassy officials for years including during the
Cold War.

Is Putin really so unsure of his
grasp on power that he fears America’s Ambassador meeting with political rivals?  That is paranoid; if true. 

Why the US bluster?

But then why the noisy US public relations bluster
surrounding the Snowden fiasco?  Is it
really aimed at the Russians – and getting Snowden back?  Or is it more for US domestic consumption to out
right-wing the right wing which has thus far tried unsuccessfully to paint the Obama
administration as weak on national security since before his election in

Leningrad -The Bronze Horseman - Peter the Great Statue, 1782  PHK 4-1990Is Putin’s public response designed to bolster his weakening
standing at home? But if the US boycotts the Olympics or cancels a Summit will Putin look stronger or not? Will he be seen as today’s Peter the Great seated on his
horse like the bronze statue in St. Petersburg?  (photo by PHKushlis April 1990.

Here’s the current dilemma: 
the US has threatened to cancel a presidential summit scheduled for Moscow in
September and some in Congress call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics (presumably
along the lines of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviets
invaded Afghanistan).

Is pique over Snowden really worth an Olympic boycott?  It’s not going to bring him back, it’s not
going to give the Russians any more or any less US national security information than they
already have and all it will do is deprive young American athletes the chance
of a lifetime to compete on the world stage – such competition in it itself is something of
propaganda value.

Boycotting a Summit that’s not likely to
produce much, however, is a political gesture that in the end is not all that
important.  But what needs to be weighed
now is who it costs more in terms of public image at home and abroad:  Obama or Putin.    

Yet look at Ambassador Gary Locke in China – and before him
Ambassador John Huntsman.  Their
relations with their Chinese counterparts are and were far less rocky.

So why do US-Chinese relations tend to operate
on a more even keel – or perhaps a different plane – even though major human rights differences are frequent irritants, spy scandals continue and US official contacts with Chinese
dissidents are not what the CCP approves? 
Is it because China owns a chunk of our treasury?  Will it change as China flexes its muscles in
its surrounding seas and “near abroad”?  

Or is it something about differences in personalities – I don’t think it can just be chalked up to political cultures but
certainly individual behavior with its deep cultural roots is a part of
it.  In many ways Americans are often
more like Asians – and less like Russians – than many care to admit.     

Furthermore, the Chinese know they need to maintain a good
relationship with the US to maintain their share of our lucrative market – just
as the US knows that it needs to pay attention to China and its rising position
in Asia.  But is this equally true for
America’s relationship with Russia?

This may intrude on Russian vanity and self-image, but I’m not so sure.