If Obama sees no value in meeting him, Putin could appear irrelevant, Pifer said in a telephone interview and in an op-ed column in the Moscow Times. That’s not the image he wants to project, at home or abroad.
The summit was called off, according to the White House, because there was no sign that any progress would be made on U.S. priorities of missile defense and arms control. Although Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden was an irritant, it was not described as a deciding factor.
Obama apparently saw no point in going to a summit, getting nothing and then returning home to have Republicans who call him soft on Russia pile on the criticism, analysts said.
The administration understands that Russia, which agreed to an embargo on arms for Iran in 2010, is unlikely to do more now, Pifer said.
“On Syria, Russia asks what comes after Assad,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia can’t imagine anything but a dangerous outcome, and so it refuses to back any effort to remove him.
Russia is unlikely to reverse its cooperation on Afghanistan. Fearing that chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into Central Asia, it wants NATO and the United States to succeed in keeping the peace there. “I don’t think the Russians have an incentive to play games with that,” Pifer said.
The two sides are expected to keep talking, but at a lower level. That new stage in the relationship will begin Friday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meet in Washington with their U.S. counterparts, John F. Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
“The relationship won’t be completely cut off,” Stent said. “It can’t be. We have to work together on many issues, but Russia won’t have the priority for this White House that it once did.”
History suggests that this rift will be contained, as others have been before. Pifer recalls being a young officer in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1986 — assigned to the arms-control portfolio — when the two countries went through one of their more difficult periods. In a quarrel sparked by spying accusations, the United States had ordered about 50 Soviet diplomats out of the country. Moscow retaliated by withdrawing all Russian employees from jobs at the U.S. Embassy. For six months, until new staff could be found, Pifer added to his duties driving a truck and picking up the weekly food shipments from a Finnish supermarket.
Eventually the dispute blew over and President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to terms. Three years later, the Berlin Wall fell. The rest is history.