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Obama and Putin at the G-8: So little time, so much to discuss

Jason Reed / Reuters file

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at last year's G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012.

LONDON -- In the year since U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin last met face to face, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled that country’s raging civil war. So Syria will likely monopolize what’s expected to be a short, one-hour bilateral meeting on the sidelines of next week’s G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.

There is some common ground – the U.S. and Russia both support peace talks in Geneva between Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad’s regime and the rebel coalition, though Russia has criticized the U.S. for insufficiently pressuring the rebels to commit. 

But Obama and Putin remain miles apart on what to do about Assad himself: the U.S. wants him removed from power as part of a U.N.-backed transition; Russia is set against any foreign military or diplomatic intervention into Syria’s internal affairs, including arming the Syrian rebels. 

It’s unclear whether U.S. intelligence reports confirming Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people will change Russia’s position. For its part, the White House has parlayed those findings into a decision to provide “military support” to the rebels. 

Understandably, aside from Syria, there won’t be much time left over for other problems weighing on the U.S.-Russian relationship. Here are just some of the more pressing issues the two world leaders should be talking about…

The U.S. has imposed tougher sanctions against Iran, but Russia has balked, saying those sanctions have hurt diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program (if it indeed has one).  Russia continues to argue against an Israeli or U.S.-Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities – some of which were built by Russia. So far the U.S. has failed to convince Russia to flex its muscles against its erstwhile ally.

Going back to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s Star War’s program, the Soviet Union – and then Russia – have seen any American anti-missile defense system, whether based in space, on land or at sea, as a direct threat to their own nuclear capability. The Obama administration may have eased some of the tension recently by canceling the final phase of its Europe-based missile-defense plans, no longer placing interceptors on the U.S. West Coast or Alaska. Without a formal agreement, both sides have agreed to disagree, knowing that the missile defenses themselves have yet to be built.

This has always been the keystone to U.S.-Russian relations, but without agreement on missile defense, experts say making any fresh progress on nuclear weapons reductions will be unlikely.

During his State of the Union address in February, Obama proposed cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal by one third, that is, down to about 1,000 deployed strategic warheads from the current level of 1,700, as well as a ceiling of some 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. But Putin has, so far, resisted any talk of further cuts until the U.S. abandons its anti-missile shields.  Still, there has been a shift in tone of late which the two leaders may want to build on, even – potentially – announcing something of substance.

This is perhaps the thorniest issue on the U.S.-Russia agenda. Putin continues to crackdown on his opposition – and any dissent – with a series of draconian laws that have sent anti-Putin activists behind bars and labeled foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) into quasi spies or “foreign agents”  reminiscent of the Cold War days.

After the death, in prison, of Sergey Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who worked for an American investment company, the Obama administration passed the Magnitsky Act, banning a number of Russians accused of human rights violations from traveling to the U.S. and freezing their U.S. assets.

In retaliation, Russia passed its own ban on Americans who had allegedly abused Russians, including some U.S. adoptive parents of Russian children who died in their care. That soon became a ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by any Americans.  The ban remains in place, preventing thousands of abandoned Russian children from finding loving families in the U.S.

By far, it’s the most promising area of cooperation. Both U.S. and Russian officials say that, since the Boston Marathon bombing, both countries have significantly improved their joint efforts in tracking potential terrorists. 

Revelations that Russia didn’t inform the FBI or CIA about phone calls made by bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to militants in Dagestan until after the bombings has led to a serious Russian rethink. Now the FSB, the successor agency of the KGB, is reportedly sharing secret transcripts, for the first time, with the intelligence agencies of its former enemy. Still, there’s much to do before overcoming deeply ingrained suspicions and mistrust.

There are other important topics to review together – the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and the search for peace in the Middle East – but more substantial talks beyond the deadly crisis in Syria may have to wait…. At least until the G-20 summit, this September, in St. Petersburg...coincidentally, Putin’s hometown.