With US-Russia relations getting increasingly tense, it comes as little surprise that US President Barack Obama postponed his bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some people wished he would go, if only to send the strongest possible message to Putin directly about the need to end Russia’s crackdown on human rights. On the other hand, Obama still has that opportunity when he attends the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg on September 5 and 6.
Sadly, though, sending a strong message on Russia’s deteriorating human rights record always took a back seat to other issues on the administration’s agenda, and there was no lack of them – missile shield, strategic arms reductions, Syria, Iran... No one would question the importance of these issues, but many did question – rightly – the wisdom of putting human rights in last place among them and the assumption that taking a strong stand on rights would have endangered the ability to make headway on other issues.
If anything, the crackdown on human rights in the past 15 months has been part and parcel of the hardening of the Kremlin’s approach to its relationship with the United States and the European Union. The Obama administration’s tepid response to the civil society crackdown can only have served to embolden the Kremlin, which simultaneously dug in its heels on a range of other priorities for the US.
To be fair, the White House explicitly referred to human rights concerns in its statement postponing the meeting. Given the current dynamics (or the current policy failures), there is nothing, even by the administration’s own logic, to hold Obama back from being forthright and direct in his conversations at the G20 in early September. Nor should there be anything to stop Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from doing the same thing when they meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington, DC, later this week.
Specifically, Obama should focus on the need to reverse the crackdown on human rights, including repealing the infamous “foreign agents” law, which has now been used against hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, and the odious and discriminatory law banning “propaganda” for “nontraditional sexual relations.” He will also need to acknowledge that the US is grappling with its own human rights problems – from mass surveillance to Guantanamo – by highlighting the ongoing discussions underway between a range of government officials and civil society activists/experts. This frankness will only strengthen his overall message, while reaffirming the importance of a multifaceted partnership.
When he last came to Moscow in 2009, Obama spoke with civil society activists. That was a different era, and it seems like a lifetime ago. Today, it is more important than ever for him to find time to meet with human rights and LGBT groups, to show solidarity, to build a more comprehensive long-term relationship, and to stand up for what is right.