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Russians pull punches on US government shutdown – for now

But the media are still having some fun with US disarray – and suggesting the superpower might stop being quite so critical of Russia.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the VTB Capital Investment Forum 'Russia Calling' in Moscow, October 2. Global powers are "on the right track" with a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, Putin told the investment conference on Wednesday.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

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Barack Obama won't be holding an expected meeting with Vladimir Putin, to talk about Syria and other issues, on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia, next week. Mr. Obama's decided to cancel his entire planned trip to Asia to deal with political crisis in Washington.

The Russians say the loss of any opportunity for face time between the two presidents, especially given the recent downward spiral in US-Russian relations, is unfortunate.

"We regret that the meeting will not take place because in general there is an unconditional necessity for the continuation of the top level dialogue, a great number of questions on the bilateral agenda and also, first of all, the international issues headed by Syria," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists today.

But some experts say that's nothing compared with the potential damage done to Russian perceptions of the US, and its credibility as a diplomatic partner, inflicted by the ongoing spectacle of government paralysis in Washington.  

"I am constantly trying to explain to many of my colleagues that, just as we insist that the US needs a strong Russia, we also require and benefit from having a strong America on the global stage," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, and one of Russia's most venerable America experts.

"American power underpins the world order as we know it, and although it's fashionable these days to argue that the US has too much power, and does not use it wisely, we nevertheless need it. If things happen to limit its power, and call its credibility into question, that undermines global stability and makes the world much more unpredictable....  Of course the US will solve this crisis, and probably be a better country for it, but meanwhile it will consume Obama's time and energy, and detract from his ability to fulfill his second-term agenda. That will hurt Russia, in ways that go far beyond this one lost meeting," he says.

So far there has been remarkably little schadenfreude or even derision on display in the Russian media over the US government shutdown, although the Kremlin-funded English-language television network RT, which is designed for foreign audiences, seemed to be having a good deal of fun with the story.

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Anniversary of Russia's own shutdown

One reason for the muted reaction might be that, by odd coincidence, Russia happens to be marking the 20th anniversary of its own bloody version of a  government shutdown this week, when political stalemate between President Boris Yeltsin and his democratically elected parliament erupted into a mini-civil war on central Moscow streets.

"Such conflicts in the US tend to be resolved peacefully, and this gives us the important lesson that the separation of powers can work," says Mikhail Krasnov, chair of constitutional law at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

"I can only wish we had such conflicts here in Russia. Our one experience with divided government ended with those ugly events in October 1993, which we are recalling right now," he adds.

Russia's request

Russia had requested the special meeting at the APEC summit in Bali in order to touch base on diplomatic efforts to resolve Syria's civil war and try to improve the strained personal relations between Obama and Putin.

"The relations between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama are those that should be between the leaders of two states that share the responsibility for global security and stability. They are very constructive, though lately they have plenty of quite serious contradictions," Mr. Peskov remarked last month.

Alexander Sidyakin, a conservative and pro-Kremlin State Duma deputy, says that Russia should not try to lecture Americans as they go through their government shutdown crisis, and in return the US should stop criticizing Russia.

"We can observe, but not try to teach. Let this scandal demonstrate to American authorities not to interfere in other countries' affairs," he says. "I think this crisis has damaged the US's reputation, but in fact they have been losing credibility in the international sphere for some time. This is a crisis of their whole system, and it proves that the idea of a unipolar world [dominated by the US] is all wrong." 


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