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Russia Remains the Same

It will be business as usual in Moscow whether Obama apologizes or not.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By CATHY YOUNG
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A month after his speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world, Barack Obama will make another historic trip: this time, to Moscow. While many Obama supporters hope that the July 6-8 visit will push the much-anticipated "reset button" in the badly strained relationship between Russia and the United States, critics fear that Obama's accommodating stance will simply enable more bad behavior by Russia.

Hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the United States under an Obama administration were being voiced even before last November's election. Expectations of "change" from Obama went hand in hand with cautious optimism about Russia's new president Dmitri Medvedev, the handpicked successor to Vladimir Putin, who took the post of prime minister. These hopes were somewhat dampened when, the day after Obama's victory, Medvedev threatened to put Russian missiles on the Polish border in response to the planned U.S. deployment of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Still, a warmer welcome followed with a telephone conversation between the two presidents, and talk of a "fresh start" has intermittently continued.

Today, more than a year into the Medvedev presidency, it is obvious that there has been no change of course at the Kremlin. The extent of Medvedev's true authority remains unclear, and Putin is still a figure to contend with. While Medvedev may seem more sympathetic to domestic liberalism--he doesn't, for instance, share his patron's open, visceral aversion to journalists and activists critical of the state--his rhetoric on foreign affairs has been no less aggressive than Putin's. Any "reset," then, would have to be based on a change in American policy.

Indeed, most American critics of the "new Cold War"--on both the left at the Nation and the paleocon right at the American Conservative--share the belief that the recent chill between the United States and Russia was caused primarily by American arrogance and insensitivity. In this view, Russia extended a hand of friendship to the United States after September 11 only to be repaid with repeated slaps in the face: the Bush administration's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the former USSR, support for regime change in ex-Soviet republics (particularly the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine), and plans for a missile shield that Russians fear is directed mostly at them. Supporters of a "fresh start" undoubtedly hope Obama's Moscow trip will include apologies for at least some of these perceived wrongs.

The perception, however, is quite tendentious. The ABM treaty withdrawal drew only mild objections from Russia and was accompanied by the signing of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty on very advantageous terms for the Kremlin.

The oft-repeated claim that NATO expansion violated a promise made to Mikhail Gorbachev during the first Bush administration is likely a political myth. (It was strongly refuted by the diplomat and academic Philip Zelikow in 1995.) And, for all the talk of Russian paranoia, it is extremely doubtful that Moscow is seriously worried about an attack by NATO forces--which, as former top Soviet arms negotiator General Vladimir Dvorkin pointed out on the independent website EJ.ru in April 2008, is virtually unthinkable considering Russia's nuclear potential.

Charges of U.S. meddling in the Orange Revolution show a remarkable amnesia about the blatant attempt to fix the Ukrainian presidential election in favor of Russian-backed candidate Leonid Yanukovich. Even former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack F. Matlock, usually sympathetic to Russian grievances, harshly criticized Putin's ham-fisted interference.

As for the missile shield, no one has offered a plausible explanation of how it threatens Russia--considering it could not neutralize even 1 percent of Russia's nuclear arsenal--other than vague claims that it could be the start of a much larger U.S. defense system. (The United States has also repeatedly offered to open the installations to Russian inspection.)

This is not to say that U.S. conduct has been faultless. Some pro-democracy critics of the Putin regime, such as Moscow-based Carnegie Endowment scholar Lilia Shevtsova, charge that the Bush administration neglected America's relationship with its former Cold War rival, giving the Kremlin too much of a free pass on human rights and paying too little attention to Russian sensitivities over such issues as the missile shield. Still, Shevtsova concedes that a more constructive approach from the United States would have, at most, only somewhat mitigated conflicts made inevitable by the aims and attitudes of the Russian leadership.

The Kremlin's conduct in the Putin era, almost unchanged under the Putin-Medvedev tandem, has been largely shaped by two related motives. One is resentment over the loss of empire and superpower status, which has an element of populist pandering but also reflects the genuine sentiment of much of Russia's political elite. The other is self-preservation: The crony-capitalist junta that currently rules, and owns, Russia is fearful that democratic change could threaten its power.

Both factors were part of Putin's vitriolic reaction to the "color revolutions" (the start of Russia's sharp anti-American turn). The peaceful victories of the pro-Western opposition next door were seen both as Western poaching on Russia's turf and as warnings of a domestic peril. The same issues are key to understanding the controversy over NATO expansion. The real "threat" to Russia, General Dvorkin argued in his 2008 commentary, is "civilizational isolation" if the Russian regime continues to resist democracy and modernization while its neighbors join the democratic capitalist West. Indeed, Russia's response to the European Union's entirely non-military Eastern Partnership initiative has been hostility and griping about "anti-Russian" alliances.

All this posturing has little to do with Russia's real national interest or security. Moscow's conduct toward its neighbors, with its imperial pretensions and clumsy bullying, is a good object lesson in how not to win friends and influence people: In a June 15 column on Grani.ru, Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky noted that "the Kremlin has done its best to squander the remnants of its influence in its own former empire" and to push away key allies. The recent maneuvering to bribe Kyrgyzstan to evict a U.S. airbase essential to the American and NATO effort in Afghanistan shows that the desire to prove to Uncle Sam who's boss in "post-Soviet space" outweighs not only Russia's putative interest in "resetting" relations with the United States, but also its very real interest in preventing a victory by radical Islamists in Afghanistan.

What does all this mean for the Obama administration? It should be remembered that Obama is not exactly a Russia dove. During the campaign, he had harsh words for Russia's war in Georgia and its attempts to use its energy resources as a geopolitical weapon. His chief adviser on Russia is Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and Hoover Institution fellow who is a strong advocate of democracy promotion--and who actually hosted a program on democracy on Russian television in the mid-1990s.

McFaul, currently special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, is a strong supporter of U.S. engagement with Russia. He is also, however, outspoken in his belief that true partnership is possible only with a Russia that shares a commitment to liberal democracy.

A very different approach is advocated in a report presented to the Obama administration in March by the nongovernmental Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (a Republican who campaigned for Obama last year). In the commission's view, the United States should focus on economic and political cooperation with Russia and avoid pushing too hard on democracy and human rights. It's hard to tell to what extent this report, which recommends reevaluating missile defense and abandoning the goal of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, will influence policy. But one of its more nebulous suggestions--to urge the Russian government to respect its stated commitments to democratic principles "while respecting Russia's sovereignty, history, and traditions and recognizing that Russian society will evolve at its own pace"--is such a classic Obamaism that some variation on it can be expected to pop up in the president's Moscow speech.

At this point, any major shift in U.S.-Russian relations is unlikely. With the effects of the economic crisis muted and oil prices up, Russia is in a less cooperative mood than in early spring (despite simmering problems that include possible social unrest and violence in the provinces of the Caucasus). This month, the Kremlin rejected proposals for missile defense cooperation with the United States as long as such plans included installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The hope that Russia could help resolve the Iranian nuclear problem amount to little more than wishful thinking. Russia's semi-friendship with Iran in recent years has been rooted primarily in a common adversarial relationship with the United States. If a more America-friendly Russia tried to pressure Iran, it would be unlikely to have leverage. While the Russians could stop providing Iran with technology, there are always alternatives like North Korea around.

The prospects for Obama's outreach encouraging liberalization in Russia are also doubtful, given the murky politics of the "tandemocracy." There have been credible reports of Putin-Medvedev friction; some Russian political analysts believe the presidency and the premiership now act as somewhat effective constraints on each other's powers, substituting for the normal checks and balances of democracy. But there is no clear-cut rivalry between an anti-Western hardliner and a pro-Western reformer in which the United States could throw its weight behind "the good guy."

One concern among critics of the Kremlin regime is that a too-accommodating stance by Obama will embolden a more aggressive Russian stance in the "near abroad." In a Grani.ru column, Hudson Institute fellow Adrian Piontkovsky warned of ominous signs that Moscow may be preparing for a second war in Georgia this summer. While NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine is off the table for now, given the two countries' internal problems, one hopes that Obama will send a strong message that U.S. commitment to their sovereignty is undiminished.

When all is said and done, perhaps the best-case scenario to be expected from Obama's Moscow trip is business as usual--and not too many apologies.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.