The Magazine

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 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.