By David Meyers, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Meyers worked in the Bush White House from 2006 to 2009, and later for Senator Mitch McConnell. His work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, The Washington Times and The Diplomat. The views expressed are his own.
Reports last week suggested U.S. President Barack Obama might be considering cancelling an upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s handling of the Edward Snowden saga. But while President Obama would be right in cancelling the meeting, he should do so regardless of the outcome of Snowden’s asylum application. After all, Putin has given him plenty of reasons to do so already.
For years, the Russian president turned prime minister turned president again has been waging an aggressive attack against freedom and democracy in Russia. He's imprisoned numerous law-abiding opposition figures, rigged elections, and crushed meaningful public dissent. He's also persecuted minority groups, including signing into law a troubling vague and broad law designating “homosexual propaganda” as pornography, and has presided over a system where the wealthy can increasingly literally get away with murder.
At the same time, Putin has helped Bashar al-Assad continue the slaughter in Syria (a conflict that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives), and shielded Iran as it races towards a nuclear weapon and continues to back terrorism.
How has the United States responded to all this? Obama's first-term record on Russia was a mixed bag. He launched a “reset” in ties during which he appeared determined to avoid criticizing Putin at all costs. But the outreach effort produced few tangible results even as Russia went about strengthening alliances with U.S. rivals including China and North Korea.
Obama, to his credit, took note and appointed Michael McFaul as U.S. ambassador to Russia. To most Americans, McFaul's appointment meant little. But to Putin, it was a cold, hard slap in the face.
McFaul is a leading advocate of spreading democratic governance and freedom, and Putin was unsurprisingly outraged by the appointment, which came shortly before Russia’s presidential election. Indeed, the Kremlin launched a campaign to discredit and delegitimize McFaul.
Some claim there is little Obama can do to alter Putin's behavior, and that confronting Putin might make the Russian leader even less cooperative on areas of mutual concern. That's true – but only to an extent. The fact is that Putin has shown that he is vulnerable to political pressure, most recently in his decision to allow opposition leader/blogger Alexei Navalny to be released from jail, pending appeal of the five-year sentence he was handed earlier this month.
But another reason to consider applying more pressure boils down to a simple question: What exactly has treading lightly done for the U.S.? Moscow has cooperated on very little of importance for America, and has actually been active in trying to thwart U.S. foreign policy, most notably in Syria. All the while, Washington has lost international respect and standing as we have stood by and allowed Putin to repress his own people.
Of course America isn’t alone in all this – Britain recently admitted it didn’t fully investigate the death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko on its own soil for fear of implicating or embarrassing Putin’s government. But this is hardly a good enough reason for the United States to shy from taking a stand. And even setting aside the fact that the United States has, as a free and democratic nation, a moral obligation to stand up to Putin, there are also strategically expedient reasons for doing so.
Russia has propped up the al-Assad regime and given succor to Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions. It has also been meddling in the affairs of European neighbors, applying pressure, for example, through its stranglehold on gas supplies to the continent. To top it all, Russia also invaded Georgia in 2008, and then pursued a covert political effort to push out the country's democratic, freedom-supporting leader.
So what can Obama do? First, it is more than time for Obama to start speaking out forcefully. Words matter. Second, the administration should support efforts in Congress to punish Putin and his Russian cronies for their abuses. Third, Obama must do a better job of rallying U.S. allies on the international stage to U.S. causes. And finally, President Obama should make clear to Putin that the United States takes a strong interest in promoting democracy – even on Russia’s doorstep in Eastern Europe.
Putin has already claimed that the United States has backed the cause of his domestic opponents. Just this once, Obama should turn Russia’s leader into an honest man.