Monthly Archives: April 2009

Russia updates: Obama and Medvedev; Lev Ponomarev

First of all, my apologies (again) for the lack of blogging.  Work has kept me busy, and partly the problem is that I want to make a meaty post when I finally make one.  In the future, I’ll try to post at least brief updates, for the Cathy-watchers who are still out there.

Lots and lots of Russia news.  Obama and Medvedev meet in London, and declare the beginning of yet another beautiful friendship.  (Medvedev called Obama his “new comrade”; I’m waiting for a “Comrade Obama” spin from the “Obama is the Stalin of our day” crowd, even though the word has long been out of use in Russia in its communist sense.)  Obama is poised to go to Russia in July.  There will be a new round in the disarmament tango, which no longer has its Cold War-era urgency because no one seriously believes that Russia and the United States could ever lob missiles at each other.  The idea of missile defense cooperation sounds interesting, but it’s unclear what, if anything, the talks about NATO expansion have accomplished.  (It is worth noting that Alexander Vershbow, Obama’s pick for Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security — a position that includes responsibility for U.S. policy toward NATO and coordination of U.S. security policies relatied to the nations and international organizations of Europe, the Middle East and Africa — is not only the former U.S. ambassador to Russia but, judging by his comments last October, a strong proponent of NATO’s eastward expansion.)  And I’m not sure why there are all these expectations that a cooperative Russia could help solve the Iranian nukes problem.  As far as I can tell, Russia’s friendly relationship with Iran in the past few years has been rooted mainly in a common interest in flipping off Uncle Sam as publicly as possible.  If a U.S-friendly Russia tried to pressure Iran to scuttle its nuclear program, I don’t see what leverage it would have.  Sure, they could stop providing the technology, but it’s not as if Iran had no alternatives, particularly with North Korea around.

My own (long) recent take on U.S.-Russian relations is in the April issue of Reason.  In a nutshell, I remain convinced that no meaningful partnership can exist between the U.S. and Russia as long as the Russian leadership (and much of the public) either embraces or exploits the idea that Russia’s greatness and special destiny lies in juxtaposing itself to the West, that for Russia to become fully integrated into the community of Western nations would somehow be a humiliation or a defeat.  Over the past five years, the Kremlin, via the mass media, has whipped up anti-Western and especially anti-American paranoia to a degree that few Americans can imagine.  (On March 26, in an interview on the Ekho Moskvy radio station [link leads to Russian text], a leading pro-government media personality, Maksim Shevchenko — who hosts a political talk show on Channel One as well as several radio shows — said that American forces in Afghanistan were “perfectly positioned to strike at our Urals, our Central Asia, our Southern Siberia.”)  Until the Russian government decisively divorces itself from this toxic nonsense (which is also peddled by loyalist youth groups like Nashi), its cooperation will not be reliable.

And, despite some signs of liberalization in Russia, the overall picture remains pretty bleak.  Here is the latest: the violent attack on human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, the subject of my column in today’s Boston Globe.  It was clearly a political attack, and while I don’t believe the government was directly involved, it has most certainly contributed to the atmosphere in which this kind of violence flourishes with impunity.  Much to Obama’s credit, he brought up the incident in his meeting with Medvedev.  (My earlier column on Ponomarev can be found here.)

There’s a common view among American “realists” that we shouldn’t push Russia too hard on democracy and human rights, and instead focus on areas of international cooperation.  But in Russia, contempt for human rights and confrontational attitudes toward the West go hand in hand.  That’s something that I hope the Obama administration will remember.  Fortunately, Obama’s top Russia hand at the National Security Council, Michael McFaul, seems well aware of this fact.


Filed under Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations