Monthly Archives: July 2009

Post-summit analysis: a couple of links

Obama is not the messiah.  Or a dupe for the Kremlin.  (My RealClearPolitics.com column on the Moscow trip.)

Cheney (not that Cheney) slams Obama for supposedly too pro-Russian in his comments on the Cold War’s end in his speech at a Moscow university.  Here’s why I think she’s wrong (article on TNR.com’s The Plank).

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Post-summit Moscow report: Business as usual

In my Weekly Standard article before Obama’s trip, I said that the most likely outcome would be “business as usual.”  And, evidently, so it is.

The latest news:

Russia will not agree to tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program in exchange for a new nuclear arms cuts deal with Washington, Interfax news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Tuesday.

A Kremlin source told Reuters that the exchange of remarks over START and Iran did not indicate any change in the overall atmosphere of Russia-U.S. contacts.

Pretty much the textbook definition of business as usual.

In other, little-reported news, Medvedev reiterated right after the summit that Russia still plans to deploy (not-yet-existent) missiles in Kaliningrad if the U.S. goes ahead with the missile shield installations in Poland and the Czech Republic (plans that remain intact, though still under review for effectiveness, according to a July 10 briefing by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley; see the video here at 13:26).

Of course, this renewed crude saber-rattling actually makes it harder for Obama administration to scrap those sites if the review finds them less than effective, because then Obama will be seen as giving in to Russian blackmail.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Kremlin junta, with its “foreign policy” of tantrums and grievances, would much rather have those missile defense installations in place and be able to scream about being threatened and disrespected by the Americans.

So much for the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics.com)

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The (second) Georgian war will not take place?

Will there or won’t there be another Russian attack on Georgia?  Since I raised the issue in my Wall Street Journal op-ed a few days ago, a follow-up.

In a July 7 article on Grani.ru, Andrei Piontkovsky, one of the commentators who have warned most strongly about the possibility of a new war this summer, writes that he now believes the risk is considerably reduced.

Why?  For one thing, Piontkovsky (not a big Obama fan) thinks “Obama has done what he could,” both by bringing up Georgia during his Moscow visit — apparently in rather firm tones — and by sending Vice President Biden to Tbilisi.  (There’s a new function of the Veep role: a human shield!)

However, he believes the actions of another president — the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan — may have been even more important.

On June 26, an amazing event happened in Yerevan.  In the midst of the anti-Georgian bacchanal in all of the pro-Kremlin media, the president of Armenia, Russia’s only remaining ally not just in the Caucasus but in the entire post-Soviet space, solemnly and very publicly bestowed on Mikhail Saakasvili the highest Armenian state award – the Order of Honor.

Such things in the Caucasus are never accidental.  Serzh Sargsyan, who is in many ways dependent on Moscow, would have never permitted himself to simply taunt the Kremlin.  He would be risking too much for such a dubious pleasure.  It was a well-thought-out demonstration, a deliberate attempt to stop the madmen in Russia’s political and military leadership who were preparing for a second Georgian war, which would have been devastating to the entire Caucasus and to Russia.

It seems to me that this act probably affected our wannabe geopolitical strategists more than any other argument.  If they are losing even Armenia, what “zone of privileged interests” do they have left?  As if on command, the active phase of psychological preparation for the war – the articles and interviews of the Dugins and the Dorenkos about the inevitability of a Georgian attack on Russia – came to a halt.

More here on the award to Saakashvili and his trip to Armenia, and some reactions from Russia.

(By the way, the title of this post is an obscure pun.)

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Crossing the line

As I said in my previous post, I have limited sympathy for Sarah Palin.

However, this, from Andrew Sullivan (on top of the never-ending flogging of Trig Palin conspiracy theories), is outrageous.  I saw the reference to the “white trash concupiscence” Palin-slam in Douthat’s column and wondered who could have written that. Despite my knowledge of Andrew’s raging PDS, I was shocked.  And saddened, because I used to quite like Andrew’s blog (and have not forgotten that he was the first to link to mine when I started it).  I fully intend for this to be my last visit to The Daily Dish, and I have to say that at this point, if someone started a campaign to get The Atlantic website to drop Andrew, I’d back it.  Imagine the reaction if a journalist/blogger writing about a black politician referred to “ghetto concupiscence”, without even using the word “black.”

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My latest on (oh no!) Sarah Palin

She’s not the savior of conservatives.

And she’s not nearly as much a victim of the “liberal media” as her defenders make her out to be (at least if we’re talking about the mainstream media; there has been some incredible nastiness on left-wing blogs, though at least no one that I know of tried to claim that she left a trail of bodies in her wake).  About the mockery of her religion: yes, it was suggested with no real evidence that she believes the dinosaurs lived 5,000 years ago (it’s actually unknown whether she’s a creationist or not; she does support the teaching of both “intelligent design” and evolution in public schools).  However, I do think she got off rather easy on her connection to a witch-hunting African pastor (I suspect for two reasons: one, bringing up a wacko pastor connection would have inevitably called up the ghost of Jeremiah Wright; two, it might have seemed somewhat un-PC to make too much fun of a crazy pastor from Africa and his looney medieval beliefs).

Is it possible that in a few years Palin will reinvent herself as a brilliant candidate?  Perhaps; F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, there are second acts in American life.  But it would have to be one hell of a second act.  And if it is, I’ll gladly eat my words.  As I said in the article, and in other venues, I think there is definitely a place and a need for a conservative/libertarian/individualist feminsm that embraces female strength, femininity, family, and small government — and for the kind of female leadership Palin could have provided if she had lived up to her billing.

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Obama in Moscow: From the department of bad parody

Obama and Putin meet for breakfast at Putin’s Novo-Ogarevo residence.

The Obama Putin breakfast meal was served indoors on an open terrace, with some tables covered with blue, white and red tablecloths in the style of classic Pavlovsky Posad shawls.

The menu included smoked sturgeon with pancakes and cranberry sauce, eggs with black caviar and sour cream, and quail pelmeni, Russian dumplings filled with minced meat.

Homemade ice-cream and cherry kisel, a sweet sauce, were served for dessert.

Obama also got the opportunity to drink tea made from water boiled in a samovar, a traditional Russian boiler containing hot coals. A waiter in national dress, including a red embroidered tunic, used a leather riding boot to fan air through the coals to boil the water.

A folk ensemble played traditional Russian songs during the breakfast.

There’s kitsch, and … there’s this.

Words fail.

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Obama in Moscow, cont’d: A strange appointment

So, we now have a bilateral presidential commision, to be coordinated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It includes 13 working groups headed by corresponding high-level Russian and American officials (e.g., Health: Tatyana A. Golikova, Minister of Health, and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services).   One of the pairs is rather eyebrow-raising (brought to my attention by Dmitry Sidorov, the Washington, DC correspondent for Kommersant, writing on EJ.ru):

Civil Society: Vladislav Surkov, First Deputy Chief of Staff, Presidential Administration, and Michael McFaul, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia , National Security Council

Say it ain’t so!  On one side, Michael McFaul, a strong opponent of Russian authoritarianism, a champion of the “color revolutions,” a passionate believer in democracy who takes pride in having been a part of Russia’s democracy movement in the 1980s and ’90s.  On the other side, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Putin-era ideological enforcer, creator of the term “sovereign democracy” (which seems to be shorthand for “we’ll define democracy as we damn well please, and everyone else should keep their nose out of our business”) and of Nashi, the thuggish “youth movement” launched with the express purpose of thwarting grass-roots democratic activism of the kind that brought about Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”).  The same Surkov who just recently rejected the idea that the crisis should be an incentive for the Kremlin to loosen its iron grip on political life within Russia.

Putting Surkov at the head of a commission on the civil society is a bit like putting Bernie Madoff at the head of a commission on business ethics.  Or Britney Spears at the head of a commission on marriage and the family.

At Obama’s meeting with the Russian opposition today, according to Grani.ru (in Russian), Sergei Mitrokhin of the semi-loyalist Yabloko opined that “Russian-American relations must be developed in such a way as to involve the Russian political and military elite into common projects, which will contribute to the development of democracy in our country.”  If that’s the idea here, the notion of McFaul trying to teach Surkov democracy is darkly hilarious.

Later, at the Russian-American NGO forum where Obama appeared for about half an hour, Russian participants including veteran human rights activists Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Lev Ponomarev, and Sergei Kovalev asked Obama to replace Surkov.  That, of course, would be quite a slap in the face to the Russians; it will be interesting to see how this impasse will be managed.  One has to wonder what McFaul, also present at the forum, was thinking — he must have seen the makeup of the commission ahead of time.

Kommersant‘s Sidorov believes that the Surkov appointment signifies “the triumph of ‘realism’ and, simultaneously, the rejection of the principle of support for democratic transformation and civil society in other countries.”  I hope he’s wrong.  Nonetheless, it is a rather alarming choice, seriously at odds with Obama’s pro-democracy statements in his Moscow speech.


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Obama’s Moscow speech: A-

First, there was the Cairo speech to the Muslim world.  Now, Obama speaks to Russians at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School.

It was a very, very good speech that hit almost all the right notes.   The right amount of flattery for Russia as a “great power” and for its cultural and scientific achievements (and I’m glad that, in mentioning the great 19th Century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Obama resisted the temptation to claim kinship with Pushkin due to the latter’s African ancestry, as a few Russian commentators semi-facetiously predicted he might).  Recognition of Russia’s enormous sacrifice in World War II, a very big topic in Russia these days (though with a major missed opportunity to remind the audience that Russians repelled a foreign tyrant and butcher only to be re-victimized by a domestic one).

Also on the plus side: there were no apologies, no genuflection toward the official Russian point of view on NATO expansion or the missile shield.  On the contrary, Obama once against emphasized that neither is a threat to Russia.

Obama strongly reiterated America’s commitment to democracy and freedom as universal, not just American values, devoting a prominent portion of his speech to “America’s interest in democratic governments that protect the rights of their people.”

By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, and minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt, ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn’t be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a President. …

So around the world, America supports these values because they are moral, but also because they work. The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia — nations that today live with great security and prosperity.

Moreover, in discussing Russia’s “rightful place” as a great power, Obama also delivered a devastating indictment of the Putin regime’s vision of the world — the vision that has been force-fed to the Russian public for the past decade by Kremlin ideologues.

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Obama Moscow update

ObamaMedvedevPutin

So, there’s an agreement on nuclear weapons cuts.  Is that such a step of major importance today, when the once-terrifying prospect of all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States is of far less concern in the public mind (and rightly so, I think) than a stray North Korean or Iranian missile?  Since the fall of Communism, disarmament has become a ritualistic ballet that mainly flatters the Russian ego because it makes Russia feel like a fellow superpower.  (The cuts benefit Russia in other ways as well; its nuclear arsenal is badly in need of an upgrade, and the country can ill afford a new arms race.)   Has Obama agreed to link stratetgic arms reductions to the issue of missile shield installations in Eastern Europe?  Obama says no (and his chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, says no even more emphatically); Medvedev seems to think he has, because discussions of “defensive weapons” are to be included in the talks.  There’s also a statement about “cooperation” on missile defense.  Whether any of this is meaningful remains to be seen.  Russian policy expert Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes that the way out of the impasse is for the U.S. to agree to a joint missile defense with Russia, a decicion from which Trenin says “the U.S. has little to lose” even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.  The problem is that, as Trenin admits, Moscow does not want a joint ABM defense system if the U.S. also proceeds with missile shield installations in Eastern Europe.  Dead end.

There is a deal to allow the transit of U.S. weapons and military personnel across Russian territory (and airspace) to Afghanistan to help the U.S. and NATO military effort there.  As Russian military analyst Alexander Golts notes (Russian-language link), “While Moscow presented this as a concession, in reality it is obvious that the Americans’ war effort in Afghanistan ensures Russia’s security.”   Golts believes that this deal was the only useful part of the Obama-Medvedev talks, otherwise no more meaningful than (in his colorful metaphor) the chatter of extras on a movie set who must maintain the background noise of conversation.

There was, however, an interesting reference to Georgia. Continue reading

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“Just call them ‘gentlemen'”: An American expat’s advice to Obama

Mickey Berdy, an American living in Moscow where she works as a translator and interpreter, comments on the Obama visit:

“Putin” is easy to pronounce, but “Medvedev” is a mouthful for English speakers. Happily, you can avoid their last names and address them as господин президент (Mr. President) and господин премьер-министр (Mr. Prime Minister). If you’re not sure who’s in charge, don’t worry: No one here knows either. If you wind up in the same room with them, you might look in their general direction and address your comments to господа (gentlemen).

Here in Moscow, it’s hard to tell which official statements are: for internal consumption and can be ignored; for external consumption and should be noted; or blurted out on a bad hair day. So who knows what you’ll hear at the negotiating table. Heck, for all I know, you guys just crack open a couple of beers, kick back and get down to some good-natured horse-trading.

But you might hear the oft-repeated phrase, мы встали с колен (We’ve gotten up off our knees) as if Russians had crawled their way through the 1990s. I recall those years well, and I don’t remember anyone on their knees in humiliation. To the contrary, at the time, they were impressed by the aid we were giving them, especially considering that they still had all their nukes pointed at us. In any case, we gave billions to them so they could get on their feet, and now they say they are — so we’re copacetic, right? проехали (Moving right along … )

Another theme is: Нас окружают враги (We’re surrounded by enemies). This one’s easy. If it comes up, just ask: Есть у вас карта? (Have you got a map?) Then you show them that their country is one-seventh of the world’s land mass.

Go here for more.

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