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Unclenching the Fist

U.S.-Russian relations in the age of Obama

Last summer, for the first time since the now-misty days of Soviet communism, U.S.-Russia relations took center stage in American politics. In the wake of the war in Georgia, with its unnerving sight of Russian tanks crossing the border of a former satellite, talk of a resurgent, aggressive Moscow was everywhere. During the presidential debates, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain fielded questions on whether the Evil Empire was back.

By the time Election Day rolled around, Georgia was no longer on everyone’s mind and the Russian bear seemed far less scary than the bears on Wall Street. Still, Moscow will be an urgent foreign policy priority for the Obama White House. Apart from the sometimes forgotten fact that Russia retains nuclear parity with the United States, it remains a key player in a number of vital international issues, including nuclear proliferation and the war in Afghanistan. In the worst-case scenario (unlikely in the near future, given Russia’s significant domestic and military problems), an interventionist Russia could provoke the U.S. military to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe or the Baltic. If, on the other hand, relations with Russia take a more pacific turn, a genuine partnership could help the U.S. scale down its military commitments in regions where a pro-Western Russia would be a stabilizing influence.

Moscow warrants attention from those of us outside the State Department as well. Americans need not be interventionists to have both a moral and a practical interest in the state of freedom around the world. And in that light, whether Russia—a country that straddles Europe and Asia, claiming large parts of both as its sphere of influence—is a friend or foe to liberty matters a great deal.

During the presidential campaign, McCain was seen as the main Russia hawk. He certainly lived up to the reputation in August, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to forcibly retake the Moscow-backed separatist province of South Ossetia escalated into a military conflict with Russian troops, then a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia. McCain seized the moment, declaring that “we’re all Georgians” and stressing his friendship with the strongly pro-American Saakashvili.

Obama, after initially urging moderation on both sides, emerged as almost equally hawkish. He condemned Russia’s incursion into Georgia and pointed out that, months earlier, he had urged that Russian peacekeepers in the region be replaced with an international force to avert just such a crisis. During the debates, the two candidates’ stands on Russia seemed virtually identical: Both said they wanted to avoid a new Cold War while holding Russia accountable for bad behavior and helping former Soviet satellites resist Vladimir Putin’s bullying; both stressed “energy independence” as a way of reducing oil- and gas-rich Russia’s ability to throw its weight around.

While some on the left accused Obama of joining the Russia bashing out of political expediency, his relatively hawkish stance was nothing new. In the June 30 issue of The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen, the doves’ favorite Kremlinologist since Soviet days, chided both candidates for talking tough instead of addressing U.S. policies that, he argued, had antagonized and provoked the Russians. Writing on the Nation website on July 2, the investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss continued the criticism, noting that Obama was “getting advice from some of the hardest of hardliners on Russia policy,” such as Hoover Institution scholar Michael McFaul, guilty of being more concerned with “the autocratic nature of Putin’s rule” than with the “stability” it had brought. As this issue goes to press, it is unclear whether McFaul will have a role in the Obama administration, or who the president’s point person on Russia will be. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is generally a Russia hawk, and she vied with McCain for the spot of top Putin basher during the campaign.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s behavior both on the eve of Obama’s election and right after it seemed to indicate the opposite of a rapprochement. On November 2, Nashi, the state-sponsored youth movement, held a massive anti-American demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy, accommodated with street closures in traffic-clogged downtown Moscow for nearly a full day. The event featured a short film accusing America of orchestrating both world wars as well as the war in Georgia.

On November 5, in his first annual address to the parliament, President Dmitry Medvedev slammed the U.S. as the main culprit in Russia’s economic and political problems. He also promised to deploy new short-range missiles near the Polish border if the U.S. went ahead with the installation of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The timing of this threat was not coincidental, particularly since the speech had been rescheduled from October 23. Medvedev, who made no mention of Obama in his remarks, later claimed with a straight face that the fact that Americans had just elected a new president had slipped his mind.

In the next weeks, some friendlier overtures followed from both sides, with talk of a “fresh start.” On January 20, Obama’s inaugural speech contained what could be a direct message to the Kremlin: “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Who Lost Moscow?

Two schools of thought duel to explain the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. One blames a resurgent, belligerent Russian nationalism that seeks to re-establish great power status and dominance in former Soviet territories—and to use anti-Western paranoia to justify increasingly harsh
authoritarianism at home. The other blames an American intransigence that subjected Russia to years of post–Cold War humiliation, rubbing the bear’s nose in defeat, ignoring its legitimate foreign policy interests, and brushing aside its security concerns, thus producing a backlash that endangers both Russia’s neighbors and U.S. national security. These opinions cut across standard ideological lines of right and left: A leading exponent of the second school, the British journalist Anatol Lieven, has published his commentary in both The American Conservative and The Nation.

These opposing views could be approached, in a Marxian irony, dialectically, creating a unity of opposites. Perhaps the higher truth is that the fault lies with both Russia and the U.S. but not because the U.S. was too intransigent toward Russian interests. Rather, the U.S. was willing not just to accommodate but to assist Russian misbehavior—and in many ways Washington set a bad example that Moscow happily followed.

In an October 31 article for the Russian policy analysis website Polit.ru, the Carnegie Endowment political scientist Lilia Shevtsova criticized Western leaders for placing too much emphasis on personal relationships with Kremlin leaders and prioritizing “stability” at the expense of freedom. The standard America-blaming narrative asserts that Putin’s strong support for the U.S. after the September 11 attacks and his willingness to work with NATO in Afghanistan were rewarded by nothing but slap after slap in the face. This story line overlooks the fact that Putin actually received a major payoff for his cooperative attitude: de facto U.S. acquiescence in, and sometimes direct collaboration with, the Kremlin’s brutal pacification of separatist Chechnya. Indeed, one little-noticed irony is that the presence of U.S. military advisers in Georgia—recently seized upon by Moscow and its supporters as evidence of hostile American meddling—began in 2002 as part of a Russia-backed effort to get Georgia to drive Chechen rebels out of their enclave in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge

It could even be argued that the Bush administration’s aggressive unilateralism on the war in Iraq, its often cavalier attitude toward human rights in the War on Terror, and its executive power grab on the home front emboldened Putin to behave similarly. While most of the alleged Bush-Putin parallels are specious, the actions of the Bush White House easily lent themselves to a self-serving interpretation by the Putin clique, validating its cynical conviction that democracy is just a cover for “might makes right.” The war in Iraq also made it far too easy to equate all efforts at “democracy promotion,” even peaceful activities such as assisting civil rights groups, with naked imperialism. This helped the Putin propaganda machine stoke Russian unease about the U.S. role in the “color revolutions” in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, which replaced those nations’ governments with ones less devoted to Moscow.

Many Russians certainly experienced the collapse of the USSR and the weakening of Russia’s influence abroad as a blow to their national pride. But the notion that the United States rubbed Russia’s face in its humiliation is a myth. (If the West rejoiced in Communism’s Cold War defeat, so did most of the Russian media and political elites at the time.) Yes, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics ranks high on the list of Russian grievances. But when NATO first began seriously considering admitting former Eastern Bloc states in the early 1990s, most supporters of expansion assumed that it could eventually include Russia—and Russia seemed receptive. These prospects were undercut by pressures from neo-Communists and nationalists in the Russian parliament, who wanted a less pro-Western stance, and by mixed signals and suspicions on both the Russian and the U.S. sides.

It could be that the conflict is more contrived than real on Russia’s end. The belief that Kremlin rhetoric about the American threat is a faux paranoia, calculated to enable bullying at home and abroad, is shared by numerous commentators inside Russia, from the Carnegie Endowment’s Lilia Shevtsova to former top-level Soviet arms negotiator Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin. Writing in the independent online journal EJ.ru in April 2008, Dvorkin pointed out the obvious: Given Russia’s nuclear potential, a military attack by NATO troops on Russia is unthinkable, no matter how many of its neighbors join the alliance. The real danger to Russia, in Dvorkin’s view, is “civilizational isolation” if the country continues to resist democratization and modernization and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the West.

Russia’s Shaky State

There are plenty of signs that Russia in the Putin era has been traveling down that path. During the last eight years, the messy and corrupt but relatively free political system of the Yeltsin era has given way to rigid top-down control by the central state (in Putin-speak, “the power vertical”). The political party United Russia, now headed by Putin, has been firmly established as the country’s ruling force. Political opposition has been marginalized and local governments brought under Moscow’s heel. Television programming, the primary source of news for the vast majority of Russians, is under rigid censorship, and most radio broadcasting and print outlets have been brought under government control as well.

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  • ||

    I hop president Obama learns some good lessons from them. He is on the right track, but just not going far enough.

  • ||

    Putin may not last much longer if oil prices don't rise again.

  • ||

    Not current with internal Russian politics, BDB. Who is in a position to oust Putin?

  • ||

    "Not current with internal Russian politics, BDB. Who is in a position to oust Putin?"

    I have no clue but for the first time since he's been in power there are actual widespread protests against him.

    The Russian people basically made a deal with the devil where they would put up with his authoritarian state if he would deliver economic growth. The latter part of that bargain is starting to slip.

    I'm guessing a Soviet-style ousting where he goes on vacation then a group of higher-ups in the Russian government announce he "retired" for "health reasons".

  • Warty||

    Damn, look at that hunk of man. The Russians' czar is way sexier than any of ours.

  • ||

    The Russian people basically made a deal with the devil where they would put up with his authoritarian state if he would deliver economic growth. The latter part of that bargain is starting to slip.

    The Chinese did too.
    Now their economy slows.
    Friday haikus live.

  • ||

    Vladimir Putin
    Strongman of the new Russia
    Has a hot girlfriend.

    -jcr

  • ed||

    (sigh)
    Why won't our dictators pose with deadly weapons.
    I don't mind confessing that if I saw a picture of Nancy Pelosi holding a Kalashnikov,
    I'd get a woody.

  • ||

    Getting a woody while thinking about Nancy Pelosi is a grave assault on the honor of woodies everywhere.

  • ||

    if I saw a picture of Nancy Pelosi holding a Kalashnikov,
    I'd get a woody.


    Ed,

    I'm telling you this as a friend: seek professional help. There's a fine line between a fetish and a pathology, and that one's way off the curve.

    -jcr

  • ||

    vladimir putin
    has pecs like hot slavic god
    him and barack.......uuunnnhh!

  • ||

    Am I the only one that can see Putin in vinyl, with a ball gag?

  • ||

    Thank you one and all.

    I am now having a fantasy of Nancy Pelosi and Betty White calling me kitten after serving them breakfast.

  • ||

    The Russians really pissed off a lot of europe with the natural gas fiasco. Even in countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, which are traditionally very pro-Russian.

    Anyway, back to the homoerotic haiku.

  • ||

    brotherben, that says
    More about you than Putin
    Shorter answer: yes

  • ed||

    I am now having a fantasy of Nancy Pelosi and Betty White calling me kitten after serving them breakfast.

    Are they holding assault weapons?

  • ||

    ed,

    No, my breakfast nook is a gun free zone.

  • ed||

    Getting a woody while thinking about Nancy Pelosi is a grave assault

    Come on. Tell me you haven't dreamt of Ole Nance in a pink teddy.

  • ||

    Reason commenters
    Murder haiku like Putin
    Murders dissenters

  • ed||

    Nancy Pelosi
    Speaker with low-hanging tits
    Bent over, shoe fits

  • T||

    Putin wears earmuffs
    In a fashion new to me
    His bald head must chafe

  • ||

    I see Ms. Young adopts the Russian narrative on Georgia, where Russia was reacting to the Georgians.

    As a matter of logistics, the speed of the Russian "reaction" to Georgia indicates the Russians had already put an armored assault on Georgia into motion before the first Georgians entered South Ossetia. Further, this invasion would have been abundantly clear both on satellite and to human intelligence assets in Russia.

    Which makes the whole thing abundantly clear. Georgia would certainly have known Russia was invading. Its military actions were clearly focused on seizing the passes through the Caucasus before Russia could send its armor through, and neutralizing Russian "peacekeepers" already in S. Ossetia. Georgia failed to achieve those objectives in its available reaction time, and Russia's invasion went through successfully.

    If the Russian invasion hadn't been started before the Georgians entered South Ossetia, the Russian armored units would have taken at least 24 more hours to reach the passes, which would have been consolidated by the Georgians by then.

    In terms of propaganda, of course, it would have been a lot easier to show the Russians were the aggressors if Georgia hadn't tried to stop the Russians from invading. Of course, Saakashvili would deserve all the abuse he's gotten if he'd not even tried to stop a Russian invasion in exchange for a mere propaganda advantage.

  • ||

    Hillary Clinton
    All who saw her camel toe
    Were awed by its size

  • ||

    I knew sage sounded familiar...

    sage | March 16, 2007, 4:10pm | #
    Straight? Try Hillary
    All who saw her camel toe
    Were awed by its size

    VM | March 16, 2007, 4:11pm | #
    Noam the blow up doll
    for humping and fond'ling libs
    heather has two moms.

    JimmyDaGeek | March 16, 2007, 4:12pm | #
    You all perturb me
    With your corn syrup and Noam.
    I pass on offer.

    crimethink | March 16, 2007, 4:12pm | #
    Haikus about old
    women's private parts not right
    They sicken reader

  • ||

    OK, I repeat
    Way too much time on your hands
    To find stuff that old

  • ||

    Vision of Hil-Dogg
    Seered into long-term mem'ry
    google is my friend

  • ||

    Time to de-troll again...

    D.R.M. -- It's nice to see Ms. Young adapting a more reasonablу position than previous hysterical screams about Russians "invading" Georgia.

    Of course had they actually invaded Georgia, Saakishvili would not still be its president... But then arguing with anyone who still believes the "Russia invaded" canard is probably useless...

  • ||

    I agree, crimethink
    Google is a handy tool
    Don't try image search

  • ||

    "I don't mind confessing that if I saw a picture of Nancy Pelosi holding a Kalashnikov,
    I'd get a woody."

    *backs slowly away*

  • ||

    Of course had they actually invaded Georgia, Saakishvili would not still be its president...

    Funny, the British invaded the US in 1812, but Madison remained president.

  • ||

    "Am I the only one that can see Putin in vinyl, with a ball gag?"

    In Soviet Union, ball gags you!

  • ||

    "No, my breakfast nook is a gun free zone."

    Then your breakfast guests aren't really that safe, are they?

  • ||

    "Come on. Tell me you haven't dreamt of Ole Nance in a pink teddy."

    She has never pegged me. She has never been more than a friend.

  • ||

    Tell me you haven't dreamt of Ole Nance in a pink teddy.

    for sure
    A leather teddy, a pink leather teddy
    gag me with a spoon

  • ||

    Crimethink -- there's a bit of a difference in relative strength here... and Brits did burn Washington down, while Russians didn't even march on Tbilisi.

  • ||

    the point is, Ivan, that any armed incursion inside the territory of another country without the permission of that country's government is an invasion. Removing the leader of that country (your previous criterion), burning down the capital (your current criterion) are not necessary.

  • ||

    I think that's a Makarov in Putin's paw.
    Classic symbol of the Postwar Soviet military.
    Not accidental, I assume.

  • ||

    Perhaps best thread evah...

    BTW, anyone know why VP's wearing his hearing protectors upside down? Not that it matters, since they work either way but it looks dorky to use the headband as a chin-strap, and it's not like he's going to muss his hair.

  • ||

    Am I the only one that can see Putin in vinyl, with a ball gag?

    I'm sure his Mistress sees him that way two to four times a month.

  • ||

    Unless, of course, that other country being "incursed" started by shelling your peacekeepers in a disputed territory. Then it is self-defense.

    Whether Saakishvili was tricked into starting it, and by whom, is another matter.

  • ed||

    Don't try image search

    That search is my friend.
    Vanna White. Many poses.
    She's embarrassed. Heh.

  • ed||

    Yackov | March 13, 2009, 2:07pm | #

    "Am I the only one that can see Putin in vinyl, with a ball gag?"


    Substitute Putin for Pelosi and no, you are not alone.
    Is that so wrong?

  • ed||

    I guess it was. Way wrong.

  • ||

    This article is by now a rather aged and redundant piece of anti-Russian media noise. Its a brave new world out there, and the good old "west-nice, Putin-bad" mantra makes me sigh. Nato expanded because Russia was supposed to join... come on! It seems just like the army generals always prepare to fight yesterdays war, most pundits prefer to drone on the old propaganda instead of daring to peak whats around the corner. How to do it? Simple. The basic rules are always the same. Geopolitics and international power struggles generate political will and channel the media into predictable populist formats. The soft power is exercised through think tanks, other institutions and us common folk chatting
    and trying to convince each other. I dont think this kind of thinking is cynical. Pretending like those power mechanisms dont exist and writing articles such as above, thats cynical for sure.

  • LarryA||

    I don't mind confessing that if I saw a picture of Nancy Pelosi holding a Kalashnikov,
    I'd get a woody.


    I don't remember one of Pelosi, but how about Dianne Feinstein?

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  • mehmet||

    Katsuni, a world famous baseball pitcher, has been on a cold streak lately and her fans are not happy.
    hd 720p 1080p In a press conference after answering some difficult questions,
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  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • changqin||

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