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)
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
My new RealClearPolitics.com column examines Obama’s upcoming trip and the debate between “realists” and “idealists” on Russia.
(And my other column today, in The Wall Street Journal, asks if Mr. Putin is going to Georgia. Again.)
The Obama visit should be interesting. Evidently, Obama is spending a lot of one-on-one time with Medvedev (who declares on his video blog today that “Today, we are united by the values of our civilization, the values of respect for human life and human rights and freedoms” — does he say this stuff with a straight face?) and a lot of time with “unofficial” activists. On Tuesday, he breakfasts with Putin. Obama’s remarks today suggest that his “narrative” for the Moscow trip is that he and Medvedev together will be leading their countries forward to cooperation and partnership, while Putin, who “still has a lot of sway” and keeps “one foot in the old ways of doing business”, needs to understand that the time of the old ways has passed. Sounds like Obama’s message to Putin is, more or less, “Move out of the way, buddy, time’s up.”
Chances are, Putin is not going to like this, particularly in conjunction with the fact that Obama goes straight from breakfast with Putin to a day of meetings with representatives of unofficial Russia. In EJ.ru, Alexander Golts writes that his conversations with “certain people who are involved in the [U.S.-Russian] negotiations in one way or another” have left with the impression that they are confident that Obama’s visit will be productive, but also extremely tense and nervous that something will go wrong. And that “something” has a name. According to Golts,
At one point, an impressively high-level diplomat blurted out, “What if Putin finally loses it completely and screws everything up?”
I go back and forth on how real or meaningful the rumored Putin-Medvedev rift really is, and to what extent Medvedev is really emerging as his own man (or a reformer). We may learn a lot next week.
My landslide is bigger than yours!
So, Russia is resisting G-8 condemnation of the Iranian government’s handling of the election and the post-election process.
What a surprise.
According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “”No one is willing to condemn the election process, because it’s an exercise in democracy.”
And, compared to Russia, it was! There was a viable opposition candidate who was allowed not only to get on the ballot, but to campaign, have access to the media and participate in televised debates. That’s a far cry from the Three Stooges who “ran” against Medvedev in 2008 — and who debated each other, with Medvedev conspicuously absent. Medvedev had the bigger landslide, 71% to Ahmadinejad’s 62% — but the latter figure is suspiciously similar to United Russia’s 65% win in the December 2007 elections. The new formula for authoritarian regimes seems to be somewhere around two-thirds of the vote for the ruling party or its candidate. Soviet-style figures of 99% won’t do for a “democracy,” even a “sovereign” one; on the other hand, two-thirds demonstrates that a convincing majority of the population backs the ruling party.
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.
Today’s New York Times has a harsh editorial castigating Moscow’s latest exercise in stupid self-assertion:
In a depressing sequel to its petty and destructive war against Georgia last summer, Russia has now cast a petty and destructive veto in the United Nations Security Council, compelling the abrupt withdrawal of 130 badly needed international military monitors from Georgia’s secessionist region of Abkhazia.
It was petty because Russia’s larger interest lies in calming, not stirring up, secessionist ambitions in the Caucasus, a violently fractured part of the world that includes other restive regions like Chechnya. And it was destructive because whatever hopes the Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists might still retain for a semblance of international legitimacy vanishes with the withdrawal of the United Nations mission.
Moscow’s heavy-handed meddling has isolated Abkhazia, and Russia. Only Russia and Nicaragua recognized the “independence” Abkhazia proclaimed after the Russian incursion last summer. This month Russia voted alone in the Security Council to evict the monitors.
They could have added that Russia suffered an embarrassing setback in its quest for recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia when former pal Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus took the first half a $500 million loan that was a tacit bribe for recognition, and then didn’t come through.
The Times is quite right that further destabilization and growth of separatism in the region would be detrimental to Russia more than anyone else; hardly a day goes by without deadly violence, including assassinations of high-level officials and military officers, in places like Ingushetia and Dagestan. But of course, for the Kremlin leadership, muscle-flexing and ego-tripping counts for a lot more than such practical considerations.
Meanwhile, Russia is planning large-scale military exercises near the Georgian border; not only will these exercises take place in “independent” Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but they are pretty clearly directed at Georgia — at the very least, to send a signal. Adrian Piontkovsky, writing on Grani.ru (Russian text), speculates that Russia may be preparing for Georgian War II.
Today marks Dmitry Medvedev’s first year in office. But is he President Medvedev or “President” Medvedev? Is there a harmonious “tandem” or a Putin/Medvedev rift?
I have a column on his tenure so far at RealClearPolitics.com. My conclusion:
So far, the difference between Medvedev and Putin is mainly a matter of style and tone. Will style become substance? Could Medvedev be a genuine reformer who must tread carefully because he is still hobbled by the presence of Putin and his faction? Is he an ambitious man who wants to free himself from his mentor’s shadow, and prepare the ground for a second term, by using a mostly cosmetic liberalism to build a power base? Will the rumored discord in the Putin/Medvedev “tandem” become a full-scale war of Kremlin “clans”? Or is Medvedev playing “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” primarily for Western consumption?
“Only time will tell” may be the tritest of conclusions. But in this case, it is the only one that seems fitting.
An interesting article on Medvedev’s liberal moves appeared in the “Russia Now” online supplement to The Daily Telegraph (UK), produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta — the official publication of the Russian government. In other words, this is what the Kremlin’s mouthpiece wants to tell an English-speaking audience.
Medvedev’s interview to Novaya Gazeta, in a rather stilted but readable translation, can be found on the newspaper’s English-language site. And here is Medvedev’s LiveJournal (seriously).
For those who read in Russian, some good expert opinions on Medvedev’s first year and the “tandemocracy” are offered here. For those who don’t read in Russian, here’s a translation of the most interesting quote.