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Parting With Delusions

Obama, Medvedev, and Putin.

12:00 AM, Jul 8, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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President Barack Obama has had his first meetings with the leadership of Russia, and the question now is how the relationship between Moscow and Washington will move forward after this "reset" summit. A lot was wrong with the relationship between the U.S. and Russia over the past decade, and--contrary to popular opinion--the wrongs did not begin under the previous administration of George W. Bush; nor did they end when he left office early this year. It should also be said that the infamous Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission of the 1990s was not the answer to a maiden's prayer that it is frequently characterised as.

The long-term problems of Washington's relations with Moscow can be traced to two very simple acts of self-delusion. The first is that the current Russian government refuses to accept that they are not in the same position of world dominance that the then-Soviet Union was some four decades ago. The second is that the U.S. and other western nations continue to refuse to acknowledge the depth and severity of Russia's internal decline. This results in the rest of the world extending to Russia trappings of a great power (i.e. membership in the G8 and World Trade Organisation) for which they are neither eligible nor deserve.

Moscow's illusions can be seen in much of the regime's current foreign policy, which bears a strong resemblance to the actions of the Soviet government in the second half of the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko spoke to the 24th Party Congress and told the assembled delegates "there is not a single important issue that today can be solved without or in spite of the Soviet Union." At the time he was correct. Moscow was either a major partner or impediment to most of the world's international dilemmas. For all intents and purposes there were no other players on the world stage in the league of the U.S. and USSR.

By the middle of the 1970s Russia was so awash in petrodollars that it began a military spending binge, started funding every anti-western revolutionary movement or terrorist band abroad that it could make friends with, and was subsidizing allies like Cuba so they could make mischief in Angola and elsewhere. With recent record-high oil prices and the temporary windfall that it has brought to Russia's economy, it is no small wonder that Russian PM Vladimir Putin and Co. felt a 30-plus years-on sense of "Happy Days Are Here Again" nostalgia.

The truth is that today's Russia is a shambles and has none of the influence that the Soviet Union enjoyed on the international stage. Years of neglect or just plain refusing to face reality has produced a country that the Wilson Centre's famous Russian population trends expert, Murray Feshbach, describes as "not just sick but dying." Aside from an infrastructure that sometimes makes one wonder why the Upper Volga region of Russia was not renamed "Upper Volta" (before that country was renamed Burkino Faso) a long time ago, population trends are noting short of apocalyptic.

Life expectancy in Russian males is falling, and its disparity with female life expectancy is unprecedented for a nation that calls itself a modern, industrialized state. Infant mortality is rising, female fertility (and hence birth rates) is dropping, and the level of both HIV/AIDs and TB is climbing towards epidemic proportions. Deaths due to cancer, heart disease and alcoholism are also off the charts. Average alcohol consumption in Russia, Feshbach points out, is double what the WHO considers to be a level that is hazardous to health.

There is, however, little evidence that the leadership in the Kremlin is even remotely aware of the demographic disaster in the making.

Alcoholism's impact on society is Exhibit A of how far out of touch the present leadership is with the man on the street. Just one week ago Russian president Dmitri Medvedev held a meeting with his Minister for Health and Social Development and stated, "I was astonished to learn that we now drink more than we did in the 1990s, although those were very tough times."

Memo to Medvedev: Inflation is out of control, unemployment is climbing by the day, banks are failing and people's savings are being stolen, entire cities are in danger of becoming ghost towns due to the failure of the community's one major industrial enterprise, and thanks to artificially inflated and out-of-control real estate prices most people have no hope of ever owning their own apartment. Yet you are "astonished" that people are drinking more? With such atrocious detachment from the plight of the average citizen it is no small wonder Russia's leaders can still live in denial and believe they are the same military and political colossus of the 1970s USSR.