President Vladimir V Putin of Russia telephoned President Obama on Monday afternoon to discuss the escalating crisis in Ukraine. On that, the White House and the Kremlin agree. On just about everything else, the two sides are hopelessly at odds.
In its written account of the call, issued Monday evening, the White House suggested that Obama delivered a finger-wagging lecture to Putin. He expressed “grave concern” about Russia’s support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, demanded that they lay down their arms, instructed Putin to use his influence to make them do so and warned him to withdraw Russian troops massing at the border.
Hours earlier, Putin’s office had issued its own summary, in which the Russian leader sounded anything but chastened. He dismissed claims that Russia was meddling in Ukraine, criticised the Ukrainian authorities for failing to heed the desires of Russian-speaking people in the east and demanded that Obama use American influence to prevent the Ukrainian government from using force to put down protests.
It was not the first time during the crisis over Ukraine that the White House and Kremlin seemed to be talking about two different calls.
Last month, the administration described a constructive exchange between Obama and Putin over a diplomatic proposal to defuse tensions. Russia said Putin warned the president about the “continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of
The only people who know for sure what happened on these calls are the leaders themselves, the aides who listened in and people with access to a transcript. But the dueling accounts point to a new use for the normally formulaic and uninformative statements, known as readouts: They can be used as cudgels in a diplomatic battle.
“Written readouts are normally pro forma and calorie free; these are anything but,” said P J Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs. “Normal diplomatic practice is to gloss over disagreements in public and try to solve them behind closed doors. In this case, it’s ugly, but no one is reaching for the lipstick.”
Crowley, now a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University, said the readouts reflected both a lack of rapport between Obama and Putin, and the sharply different narratives on the American and Russian sides about what is happening in Ukraine.
With so little common ground, Obama and Putin are not so much talking to each other as past each other. Putin is playing to a Russian public with whom his muscle-flexing is popular; Obama, to his allies in the European Union, whose solidarity is important for standing up to Russia. Both men are sending a message to the embattled
authorities in Kiev.
Obama praised the Ukrainian government for showing “remarkable restraint” in dealing with the chaos in the east; the Kremlin slammed Kiev’s “unwillingness and inability to take into account the interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population.”
A rule of thumb
Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, said a rule of thumb for those who draft readouts was not to characterise “what the other guy said.”
“There is sanded-down, anodyne language that has developed over time that is a diplomatic go-to,” he said. The two leaders “agreed to stay in close touch,” for example.
Consider the bland, lawyerly wording of the White House’s description of a call last October between Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, after Merkel confronted him with a sensational report in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the National Security Agency had eavesdropped on her cellphone calls.
“The president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” said the three-paragraph readout, delicately omitting whether the NSA had ever done so in the past.
“The United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges,” the statement added, in the soothing tone of a spouse trying to make up after a fight.
Such bromides are a part of most readouts of Obama’s calls, whether the leader is Merkel, President Xi Jinping of China, or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Usually, the more delicate the conversation, the more cryptic the readout, though some presidential calls are so secret that they are never read out.
After the United States signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran in November, Obama called Netanyahu, who had branded the deal a “historic mistake” hours earlier and has long warned that Israel might carry out a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations.
In a one-paragraph statement that captured absolutely none of those tensions, the White House said the two leaders “reaffirmed their shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
That is what makes the administration’s accounts of his calls with Putin so remarkable. On a Saturday in early March, soon after Russia began its incursion into Crimea, Obama called Putin to register his disapproval. The White House issued a lengthy readout that delivered perhaps its biggest punch in the first line. “President Obama,” it said, “spoke for 90 minutes this afternoon with President Putin of Russia.”
“There are times when you boil a 90-minute call into a one-paragraph readout,” Vietor said. This was not one of those cases. “Putin’s modus operandi is to do 10 to 15 minutes of talking points, which are totally untrue,” he said. “It’s very hard to fight against that kind of propaganda.”
Not only that, but the Kremlin is quick to put its own spin on the conversation: It beat the White House readout by hours on the latest presidential call.
“Both sides, at least for the moment, see political advantages in standing up to one another,” Crowley said. “The ingredients of a diplomatic solution are still there, so at some point the tone will change, but we’re clearly not yet at that point.”