While the mainstream media have hailed the advances in U.S.-Russian relations supposedly achieved on Barack Obama's trip to Moscow, some conservative commentary has depicted Obama as a pushover if not a dupe for the Kremlin. The cheerleading and the alarmism are both unwarranted. The visit was no great success, but Obama probably did as well as any president could have—and some aspects of his Russia strategy can only be judged by their long-term results.
Were there significant steps forward in Moscow last week? Doubtful. The "promising arms reduction agenda" praised by former New York Times Moscow bureau chief Philip Taubman is mostly a nostalgic recreation of a Cold War-era ritual dance, largely meaningless today when war between nuclear superpowers is of far less concern than nukes in the hands of terrorists or rogue states such as North Korea or Iran. Nuclear disarmament is a fetish for American liberals because it's about getting rid of big bad missiles, and for the Russian political elites because it's one area where they can feel equal to the Americans.
On North Korea and Iran, there is still no sign of the Kremlin being more cooperative—and it is far from clear that even genuine Russian cooperation would accomplish much. The one tangible agreement, allowing U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan through Russian air space, is modestly beneficial to the United States; of course, it also helps Russia, which does not want a radical Islamic state across its borders.
If reports of success are farfetched, so are claims that Obama has made dangerous concessions to get a Potemkin triumph. New York Post columnist Lt. Col. Ralph Peters is concerned that, in the "Joint Understanding" on arms control signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the U.S. agrees to cut not only nuclear weapons but warhead delivery systems (bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles) which are also used for conventional firepower. Russia, Lt. Col. Peters warns, wants to downgrade America's conventional military strength. Sure it does. But the U.S. position, which he never mentions, remains that delivery devices converted to conventional use should be excluded from the limit set by the treaty.
Is Obama trading away missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and others charge? The "Joint Understanding" does state that the treaty talks will include "the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms." Yet Obama also said in his press conference with Medvedev that the planned missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic should not be part of this linkage, since it is "designed to deal with an entirely different threat." High-level officials confirm that the administration is not giving up the Eastern European site, though a review of its effectiveness is pending.
Nor is it true that Obama has given Russia carte blanche in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet domains. At the Moscow press conference, he singled out Georgian sovereignty as a topic of "frank discussion" with Medvedev and stressed the need to avoid "renewed military conflict." Russian commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, no Obama fan, writes on the independent Russian site Grani.ru that Obama "has done what he could" to avert a new war in Georgia, both by his behavior in Moscow and by having Vice President Biden travel to Georgia and Ukraine later this month.
Despite Obama's outward coziness with the Kremlin junta, his message struck many right notes. His speech at Moscow's New Economic School was apology-free, with no contrition for such alleged injuries as NATO expansion or missile defense. Instead, Obama reiterated America's commitment to freedom as a universal value and spoke of free speech, the rule of law, and competitive elections. While paying tribute to Russia's place as a great power, he delivered a scathing indictment of Putin-era Kremlin ideology—from the belief that "a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another" to the idea of "spheres of influence."
Of course, cooperation with authoritarian regimes has it pitfalls. Thus, the civil society section of the new U.S.-Russia bilateral presidential commission is co-chaired by Kremlin ideological enforcer Vladislav Surkov (think Bernie Madoff on a business ethics panel). Yet one could look at the upside: the U.S. co-chair is White House special assistant Michael McFaul, a strong critic of Russian authoritarianism who worked with Russia's democracy movement in the 1990s—and could be a vital liaison for Russian opposition leaders and human rights activists.
Obama's meeting with those activists, who mostly gave him high marks, was an important step. More intriguing, though, was his conspicuous effort to treat Medvedev, not his mentor and senior partner Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as Russia's true leader. (According to Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, the Kremlin tried to delay the announcement of the "Joint Understanding" until after Obama's breakfast with Putin; the U.S. refused.) Even Obama's slightly ludicrous praise for Medvedev's commitment to achieving the rule of law could be attempted positive reinforcement.
The signal to Russia seems to be that if Medvedev asserts himself and chooses reform, he will have American support. Given the murkiness of Kremlin politics, this tactic has its risks: the U.S. could be investing political capital in someone who could be either a puppet or—even as his own man—another dubious ally. Still, as long as Obama's team proceeds with caution, it is a genuine if small chance to encourage change.
The administration's Russia policy deserves careful but fair scrutiny. Uncritical praise for symbolic "advances" is not helpful. Neither is criticism based on stereotypes of Obama as a foreign policy weakling.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.