Obama's Russia Trip

How should the president approach Medvedev and Putin?

As Barack Obama's trip to Moscow next week draws near, there is much talk of a fresh start—or, as Vice President Joseph Biden put it earlier this year, "pushing the reset button"—between the United States and Russia. But "reset" to what? A partnership based on shared democratic values, as many hoped in the 1990s? A pragmatic collaboration based on common interests such as combating terrorism, with issues of freedom and human rights sidelined? There are strong voices arguing for each viewpoint. But for the foreseeable future, neither approach is likely to yield much progress in relations with Russia, since both arguments reflect a high degree of wishful thinking.

This is not a left-versus-right issue. The pragmatic "realists" include left-of-center liberals and conservatives of the Nixonian and old-school isolationist kind; the "idealists" who champion the battered cause of Russian democracy are found across the political spectrum.

To realist pundits such as New America Foundation fellow and National Interest columnist Anatol Lieven, the democracy promoters are dangerously naïve, their zeal easily translating into reckless interventionism—or, at least, into a Cold War mindset needlessly hostile to the Kremlin. The Russian neo-authoritarianism that emerged under Vladimir Putin, realists argue, is not Soviet communism: it is not based on a totalitarian ideology that confronts the West with a rival political and economic system and predicts its own global victory. It is simply a repressive regime, the kind we have befriended before.

But, the inglorious record of such "friendships" aside, there is a major difference between Putin's Russia and Pinochet's Chile or modern-day Saudi Arabia: "classic" authoritarian regimes do not see themselves as our global rivals. 

While Russia under Putin (and his not-quite-elected successor, Dmitry Medvedev) eschews communism, it does have a semi-formal state ideology revolving around its self-image as a "great power." Realists such as Lieven and former Bush administration official Thomas Graham, who penned a recent Century Foundation report on U.S.-Russian relations, acknowledge this. Moreover, they admit that Moscow's "great power" ambitions dictate rivalry with the West and efforts to "constrain" the U.S. as well as dominate neighboring states on former Soviet turf. Yet they maintain that such nationalism can somehow be channeled into healthy  avenues of cooperation with the U.S. and even democracy-building at home. Who's naïve now?

The realists have some valid points: for instance, that Russia has legitimate interests not always identical to American ones. But they often forget that those interests may not be identical to those of the current Kremlin clique, either. Thus, after years of an oil windfall, Russia's infrastructure is still a disaster zone while Putin and his cronies in the oil and gas industry have enriched themselves.   

Abroad, Moscow's clumsy bullying has pushed away many allies, most recently Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka, and dramatically diminished its real influence on "post-Soviet space." Last year's Georgia adventure and the acquisition of two money-draining, volatile protectorates, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in an already unstable region probably brought Russia no benefits except an ego boost. The Kremlin's attempts to use energy resources as a weapon have given Europe powerful incentives to seek alternative suppliers. Indeed, another recent "realist" brief for a new détente—the report of the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, co-chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel—admits that some of Moscow's behavior casts doubt on how "rational and competent" its leadership is.

The saga of the Manas Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan illustrates both the erratic nature of Russia's foreign policy and its unreliability as a partner. In February, Russia used a lucrative aid package as a bribe to get the Kyrgyz government to expel the base—essential to U.S. operations in Afghanistan—for no ostensible reason except to show up the Americans. Now, after an even better deal with the U.S., Kyrgyzstan is keeping the base (on slightly different terms). While the Kremlin has expressed approval, this is likely a face-saving gesture after being double-crossed on an informal, unenforceable agreement.

Pragmatic cooperation with such a regime is clearly not very realistic. Unfortunately, at present, the same can be said of democracy promotion efforts.

A few days ago, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said that Obama should shore up Medvedev against Putin to empower the Russian president to embark on liberal reforms. The trouble is, the authenticity Medvedev's liberalism is still a big question mark.  

In foreign policy, Medvedev certainly hasn't departed from Putin's aggressive stance. At home, he shows far more respect than his mentor for liberal ideas and institutions, such as a free press and human rights groups—but it's hard to tell whether that means anything more than lip service. In April, Medvedev raised eyebrows by giving an interview to Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper harshly critical of the government; yet his answers amounted to a whitewash of Russia's undemocratic practices. Despite a few improvements—for instance, legal reform easing the bureaucratic hurdles faced by non-governmental organizations—the harassment of opposition activists has continued.

Nor is there a true grass-roots base for a liberal society in Russia today. Majorities of Russians may tell pollsters that they want more democracy and that they consider freedom of the press important—but surveys also show that the lack of political freedoms and rights is not a high priority for most. After decades of communist dictatorship followed by years of turmoil, apathy and cynicism reign.

What can, and should, Obama do in this situation? On the government-to-government level, the results of the summit will probably be limited to a new arms control treaty—an almost meaningless ritual in this age of worries about North Korean and Iranian nukes. Obama's speech in Moscow will probably strike a fine balance between talk of democratic values and talk of respect for Russian tradition; one also hopes that it will include a strong message of American support for the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. His planned meeting with Russian human rights groups will send a positive signal as well.

In the long term, change in Russia has to come from within. The best thing an American administration can do is not prop up a regime that impedes such change, and not expect too much from any partnership with an authoritarian regime in the Kremlin.

Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor and a columnist at RealClearPolitics. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

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  • Mike||

    Putin is about 10 times smarter than Obama. I hope our Messiah doesn't embarass us too much, or let Putin talk him out of our missle defence program.

  • HBD Books||

    He should say "Sorry for sticking our noses where it doesn't belong."

  • DJF||

    Ah, another month, another anti-Russian screed by Ekaterina Jung (aka Cathy Young).

    What happened Ekaterina, when you left the Soviet Union in 1980 did they keep your teddy bear and you have never forgiven them.

  • lunchstealer||

    Love the picture, BTW. Got a Clinton babushka doll (dunno what they're really called) in Tallin, Estonia. The inside includes Paula, Hillary, Monica, and a little bitty cigar.

  • lunchstealer||

    Now I remember, its matruska. Putin's australopithecine nationalist dick-waving and/or thuggery has really destroyed any interest I had in getting the particulars of Russian culture right. Which is kinda sad, but I don't have the energy to fix it at this stage.

  • hmm||

    Russians, both abroad and in Russia, are not apathetic or cynical. I don't know what you used to come to that conclusion, but it is generally wrong.

    The nesting dolls are matryoshka. My favorite is a Homer Simpson one I picked up, for a friend who resembles Homer, on Arbat. The absurdity and gaudiness was just too much to pass up, but that is what a lot of Arbat is. The VDNH is a lot less touristy.

  • zoltan||

    Ah, another month, another anti-Russian screed by Ekaterina Jung

    I know! They are such a democratic republic/free market state! A writer for a libertarian magazine most assuredly should not be criticizing them! Just like we shouldn't criticize Iran!

  • John Q. Adams||

    "...one also hopes that it will include a strong message of American support for the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors..."

    This is priceless coming from a neocon. Let's hope Uncle Sam will also begin to respect the sovereignty of other countries.

  • ||

    The first thing to do is apologize for something or the other, as Obama does to all of America's foes. In all seriousness, I doubt the ass-clowns at state can really comprehend what's going in on Russia right now. Industrial and economic failure is endemic across the country. Corruption is everywhere and the government uses it's power to repress political dissent in ways that would make the KGB blush. The real question is what are our interests? Do we wish to help secure the former Soviet states that Putin wants control over? Do we want to put up a missile defense that serves our interests rather then theirs? When will we begin to face off against their energy strategy instead of letting Putin outsmart the west again and again? Do we think that we'll ever get their support on Iran or the Palestinians or any other such area of disagreement? I'm astonished by the naivete of those who would hand out "reset" buttons, I mean who do they think we are dealing with? The Russians are not peers of the U.S., they are a third world country, mostly, with a huge military and nuclear arsenal. Deal with them accordingly.

  • hmm||

    Russia is far from a third world country. It has its issues, but give the people a common enemy and it will not take long to realize you are dealing with a large easily agitated bear.

    I agree any dealings with Russia need to be from a strong position, if nothing more than to at least gain an equal footing or respect. I don't think Obama's recent apologetic pandering crusades would be a good idea in Russia. Not that I think such a strategy is a good idea at all.

    You can't blame them for being pissed that we are putting missiles in their back yard. There was a similar occurrence and we got mighty upset.

  • DJF||

    """zoltan writes

    I know! They are such a democratic republic/free market state! A writer for a libertarian magazine most assuredly should not be criticizing them! Just like we shouldn't criticize Iran!"""

    But there are plenty of non "democratic republic/free market state"s. And a lot of them are much much worse then Russia. How about China, or Vietnam or Saudi Arabia or Dubai etc etc. Or how about the non-free market state called the United States which just paid out trillions of dollars to a bunch of thieving and incompetent but politically connected bankers. Yet with Ekaterina Jung its always Russia.

    How about a story about Georgia, where a unpopular president puts down protesters with riot police and who uses his military to try to maintain the Stalin imposed borders on non-Georgians

  • Silas Shovewell||

    Correct me if I am wrong, but Georgie does not have a huge neucler arsenel and large amounts of the worlds energy reserves.

  • jacob||

    "Yet with Ekaterina Jung its always Russia."

    Maybe it's because she's from Russia and can provide us insight into that country's dealings.

    Seriously, with the way the Russians have been acting since Putin came to power, how can you defend them?

    "when you left the Soviet Union in 1980 did they keep your teddy bear and you have never forgiven them."

    Gee, sounds like she's hurt your feelings....

  • hmm||

    If you want a good time go to a party full of Russians and simply say, "So, how about that Putin."or "So who here likes Putin." Stand back and watch the fun.

    Russians' views on Putin are as varied as Americans' views on Obama. I see a delineation between those living abroad and those in Russia, but it isn't an absolute separation.

    Her opinion is as valid as anyone's. I disagree with the sentiment about them being cynical and apathetic, but I guess that could just be semantics or just an outside view that isn't too close to the subject. I have a hard time reminding myself that all Americans aren't fat, stupid, and lazy. ;^)

  • ||

    young people have forgotten the cold war with Russian emire USSR.They discussed"democracy" in Russia,but if the Georgia war is the repetition so the empire can be restored before the West` eyes.

  • ||

    As the story at http://www.newsy.com/videos/obama_s_nuclear_pipe_dream suggests, the idea of America and Russia working together with the common goal of democracy is simply a pipe dream. Even if both nations were legitimately interested in democracy, the elephant in the room is nuclear disarmament, which can never happen because of the way human psychology acts in diplomacy.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets..

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

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