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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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.