In anticipation of Barack Obama’s Moscow trip, my new article on U.S.-Russian relations runs in The Weekly Standard.
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 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.
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.
The hope that Russia could help resolve the Iranian nuclear problem amount to little more than wishful thinking. Russia’s semi-friendship with Iran in recent years has been rooted primarily in a common adversarial relationship with the United States. If a more America-friendly Russia tried to pressure Iran, it would be unlikely to have leverage. While the Russians could stop providing Iran with technology, there are always alternatives like North Korea around.
The prospects for Obama’s outreach encouraging liberalization in Russia are also doubtful, given the murky politics of the “tandemocracy.” There have been credible reports of Putin-Medvedev friction; some Russian political analysts believe the presidency and the premiership now act as somewhat effective constraints on each other’s powers, substituting for the normal checks and balances of democracy. But there is no clear-cut rivalry between an anti-Western hardliner and a pro-Western reformer in which the United States could throw its weight behind “the good guy.”
One concern among critics of the Kremlin regime is that a too-accommodating stance by Obama will embolden a more aggressive Russian stance in the “near abroad.” In a Grani.ru column, Hudson Institute fellow Adrian Piontkovsky warned of ominous signs that Moscow may be preparing for a second war in Georgia this summer. While NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine is off the table for now, given the two countries’ internal problems, one hopes that Obama will send a strong message that U.S. commitment to their sovereignty is undiminished.
When all is said and done, perhaps the best-case scenario to be expected from Obama’s Moscow trip is business as usual–and not too many apologies.