Displacing the Reset with Russia

As you no doubt heard yesterday, Obama called off a planned meeting with Putin after the G20 next month in response to a number of things (including Russia’s increasing persecution of gays), but largely triggered by Russia’s offer of asylum to Edward Snowden.

In addition to this piece applauding that decision, Julia Ioffe wrote up all the things about our approach to Snowden in Russia that Lawrence O’Donnell deemed unfit for MSNBC last night, which echo what I said back in June. The key bullet points are:

  • You can’t back Putin into a corner and leave him no options. If you are a world leader worth your salt, and have a good diplomatic team working for you, you would know that. You would also know that when dealing with thugs like Putin, you know that things like this are better handled quietly. Here’s the thing: Putin responds to shows of strength, but only if he has room to maneuver. You can’t publicly shame him into doing something, it’s not going to get a good response. Just like it would not get a good response out of Obama.
  • The Obama administration totally fucked this up. I mean, totally. Soup to nuts. Remember the spy exchange in the summer of 2010? Ten Russian sleeper agents—which is not what Snowden is—were uncovered by the FBI in the U.S. Instead of kicking up a massive, public stink over it, the Kremlin and the White House arranged for their silent transfer to Russia in exchange for four people accused in Russia of spying for the U.S. Two planes landed on the tarmac in Vienna, ten people went one way, four people went the other way, the planes flew off, and that was it. That’s how this should have been done if the U.S. really wanted Snowden back.

You don’t back ego-driven world leaders into corners — whether it is Putin or Obama — and succeed in achieving your goals.

All that said, Reuters reported a far more interesting development than Obama blowing off the Putin meeting yesterday. The Saudis have offered to bribe Putin to back off his support of Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia has offered Russia economic incentives including a major arms deal and a pledge not to challenge Russian gas sales if Moscow scales back support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Middle East sources and Western diplomats said on Wednesday.

[snip]

Syrian opposition sources close to Saudi Arabia said Prince Bandar offered to buy up to $15 billion of Russian weapons as well as ensuring that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia’s position as a main gas supplier to Europe.

In return, Saudi Arabia wanted Moscow to ease its strong support of Assad and agree not to block any future Security Council Resolution on Syria, they said.

Finally, America’s allies (and it’s unclear how involved the US was in this deal, though Bandar usually plays nicely with us) are speaking to Putin in terms of Russia’s interests, rather than insisting Assad’s overthrow benefits everyone.

I’m especially interested in Bandar’s promise to “ensur[e] that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia’s position as a main gas supplier to Europe.” That, frankly, is probably the biggest carrot on the table here. But I can imagine no way Bandar could guarantee it (did the Qataris buy in? can Bandar control fracking in Europe? and what happens if and when the Saudis succeed in getting us to overthrow the Iranians?).

It appears the Saudis are more impressed with the meeting than Putin.

One Lebanese politician close to Saudi Arabia said the meeting between Bandar and Putin lasted four hours. “The Saudis were elated about the outcome of the meeting,” said the source, without elaborating.

[snip]

Putin’s initial response to Bandar’s offer was inconclusive, diplomats say. One Western diplomat in the Middle East said the Russian leader was unlikely to trade Moscow’s recent high profile in the region for an arms deal, however substantial.

He said Russian officials also appeared skeptical that Saudi Arabia had a clear plan for stability in Syria if Assad fell.

But it at least appears to suggest that Putin would respond to discussions that acknowledged Russia’s interests, for a change. Even if Bandar can’t yet present a plan that seems plausible.

Does Putin really have to be the grown-up in the room who points out that Syria without Assad will not be stable anytime soon?

No matter what happens with Snowden, very few have acknowledged that, in addition to details of spying on Americans, he has also mapped out the backbone of our increasingly fragile hegemony over the world.  We have responded only by ratcheting up pressure, rather than attempting persuasion.

It will be interesting to see, first, whether this Saudi initiative has any better effect. And if it does, whether we’ve been included in implementing it.

Update: Washington Institute’s Simon Henderson says we weren’t part of this scheme.

The Saudi diplomatic push shows Riyadh’s determination to force the Assad regime’s collapse, which the kingdom hopes will be a strategic defeat for Iran, its regional rival in both diplomatic and religious terms. It also reflects Riyadh’s belief, shared by its Gulf Arab allies, that U.S. diplomacy on Syria lacks the necessary imagination, commitment, and energy to succeed.

[snip]

Meanwhile, the United States is apparently standing on the sidelines — despite being Riyadh’s close diplomatic partner for decades, principally in the hitherto successful policy of blocking Russia’s influence in the Middle East. In 2008, Moscow agreed to sell tanks, attack helicopters, and other equipment to the kingdom, but the deal never went through. Instead, in 2010, Washington and Riyadh negotiated a huge $60 billion defense deal (including attack helicopters), the details of which are still being finalized. The events of the past week suggest that the U.S.-Saudi partnership — which covers regional diplomacy, the Middle East peace process, the global economy, and weapons sales — is, at best, being tested. It would be optimistic to believe that the Moscow meeting will significantly reduce Russian support for the Assad regime. But meanwhile Putin will have pried open a gap between Riyadh and Washington. The results of the latest U.S.-Russian spat will be watched closely, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    Obama’s cancellation of the Moscow meeting with Putin is likely taken correctly as a sign of Obama’s and the US’s foreign policy weakness by everyone in the entire world with the exception of the US political establishment.

    It’s tantamount to stamping one’s foot when the other kids won’t do what you say.

    If Team Obama (Obama, Kerry, Rice and Power) thought that they’d showed Putin, I’m betting that it had the opposite effect and Putin can hardly contain his laughter.

  2. Alex says:

    I’m still not sure that the administration wanted Snowden back. I sense there was some deeper subterfuge here, almost as if Snowden is a plant of some sort, given to Russia as part of a deal.

  3. scribe says:

    Assume, arguendo, that the Saudi offer to buy $15B of weapons from the Russians is genuine. This is, in the scheme of things, pretty much peanuts bought with small change. What it does signal, though, is Saudi pressure on the US.

    The Saudis are some of the US MIC’s most regular, loyal customers. I would have to think that both the Saudis and the US MIC would be very concerned about such a proposed deal. The Saudis, because there would definitely be interoperability problems involved in integrating and using the Russian systems into their military – the overwhelming majority of the stuff the Saudis use is US made and doesn’t necessarily mesh well with Russian-made. The US MIC is doubtless in a low-grade freakout over this – their most loyal non-US customer is talking to the competition.

    So, I think Bandar’s proposal is aimed more at moving Obama than Putin.

    Likewise, the sphere of influence slicing on gas doesn’t make sense after the first glance. Almost every year, come New Year’s, when central Europe from Poland to the French border is snuggled at home in the shortest days of the year around the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, there inevitably is a spat between the Russians, the Belorussians, the Ukranians, and the gas suppliers in those central European countries. The gist of the spat is over transit taxes/fees imposed on gas coming from the Russian gas fields to heat and illuminate the homes of central Europe. The governments of Belarus and Ukraine charge them, and there inevitably is the threat of the taps being turned off by one side or another over determining the size of those fees. And then they settle the dispute and the people of central Europe get back to being warm and well-lit.

    All that takes place because of the pipelines, begun before the fall of the Soviet government, that were (accurately) predicted to put Russia in charge of that part of Europe that would be using their gas. There are no pipelines running Saudi gas to Europe. I will posit that the cost of shipping gas from Saudi to Europe would make it non-competitive with the Russians’.

    As to different regions, maybe the Saudi gas would be competitive on price with the Russians’. But that wasn’t what Bandar was talking about.

    In conclusion, I think this was a Saudi play – maybe inspired by or in conjunction/coordination with Bandar’s bestest ‘murcan friends – aimed at Obama’s ego, and made with the Saudis knowing in advance that it would be a non-starter with Putin. In so many words, a little kabuki to get Obama to stop his pouting.

  4. orionATL says:

    @Snoopdido:

    that’s certainly possible, but my thought was that the snowden affair provided the prez with a good excuse to avoid a summit that was going nowhere due to larger issues by far than snowden’s assylum.

  5. orionATL says:

    “if moscow scales back support for al-assad”

    not that i have an answer, but what could the saudis especially, gain from an unstable, radicalized syria? or is that not likely to happen if assad goes down?

    i wonder if the saudi proposal might not be co-ordinated in lieu of an unproductive meeting between o & p.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: Agree with the first couple of paragraphs. But actually gas IS getting to Europe via LNG shipping (which is one of the reasons I raised the Qataris, because that’s where a lot of it is coming from–and some Euro countries are dipping their toe into fracking, albeit more rationally than we are). THE KEY ISSUE at the meeting between Putin and Morales and Maduro had to do with retaining some control over the gas market because that pipeline control is eroding.

    Which is why I said that was the big thing on the table, but likely not in Bandar’s hands to deliver.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: The Saudi plan for continued power as their own carbon fields decline is to undercut Iran at every turn (and if they can manage it, get some friendly in charge there, though it’ll never happen). That’s one of two or three things their obsession about Assad is about: bringing down Iran’s last major ally in the region.

    Will it be chaos once it’s done? Probably, though I suspect the Israelis have some plan to introduce a balkanized set of states to diminish any one power–otherwise they would never have greenlighted this effort, cause Assad is better for them than many of the most obvious alternatives.

  8. orionATL says:

    @emptywheel:

    thanks.

    i was wondering how the israelis fit into this; they’ve got to prefer assad.

    big risks these boys are taking with our world, politically and environmentally.

  9. Chris Harries says:

    onionATL, the Israelis may prefer Assad, although I suspect that they prefer anarchy and tribal wars, but they hate and fear Hezbollah.
    Hezbollah is the key to resistance in the region, partly because of what they do, militarily and politically (they make Bandar’s and the US’s clients March 14th ineffective), but largely because the story of Hezbollah, its absence of fear and its list of victories, is the spectre haunting the youth of the Levant and Arabia today.
    To defeat Hezbollah the Israelis and the US will make extraordinary efforts. And so will the monarchs of the Gulf, Jordan etc.

  10. orionATL says:

    if you appear to be giving something of great value away, maybe it’s because you don’t own it, or you possess a counterfeit.

    it makes some sense to me that the “intercepted” courrier might have been the only info the yemeni gov, the u.s. gov, etc. got from a-q, hence the vagueness about location and timing (maybe last sunday? maybe some other time).

    were that the case, then the u.s. might have done a fake “burn” of its electronic spying capabilities in order to

    – spook al-q operatives into talking with each other out of fear, so they can be dispatched by drone bombings.

    and

    – provide fodder for WTTT (the worldwide terror-terror-terror network) in the media and the congress with the explicit purpose of defending the domestic spying of nsa/fbi from attacks by anti-natsec heathens.

    do i have sources?

    unimpeachable! a very wise, 100 year old, oui-ji board.

  11. Angela Beitling says:

    @Alex: I was thinking something along the same lines. It’s all too obvious – most everything of real intent Obama keeps secret. Can’t get a feel for exactly what, but do feel there is something else going on. Even Snowden’s father has changed his tune. FBI/CIA or someone has paid him a personal visit and are now dictating his public presentations for him . Maybe?

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