Dispatch November 2008

Medvedev Spoils the Party

It will take more than Obama's electoral triumph to improve the United States' strained relations with Russia

On the day after the long-awaited U.S. election, as foreign leaders congratulated Senator Barack Obama, and jubilant crowds celebrated across the world, Russian President Dmitry Anatol’yevich Medvedev marched grimly down the Kremlin Palace’s red-carpeted halls and delivered his first state-of-the-nation speech.  It was nothing less than a brutal slapdown of those who had pinned their hopes for a painless Moscow-Washington rapprochement—or at least the start of one—on Obama’s win.  Wasting no time, Medvedev derided the “barbaric aggression” launched last August by Georgia (a U.S. ally aspiring to NATO membership) against its breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Russian peacekeeping troops stationed there.  The attack, he said, “served as a pretext for NATO’s introduction of warships into the Black Sea . . . and [for] the accelerated imposition on Europe of the American missile defense system,” all of which “destabilized the foundations of global order.”

 He then turned to the world economic crisis, and bluntly blamed it on the selfishness and “unilateral” policies of U.S. authorities.  Toward the end of his 85-minute speech, which dwelled mostly on domestic matters (and included a repetition of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s proposal, first made last year, that presidential terms be extended from four to six years), he announced that Russia would counter American missile defense plans by deploying jamming facilities and short-range ballistic Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave lodged between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.  “We have no problems with the American people, we have no ingrained Anti-Americanism,” Medvedev added, “and we hope that the new U.S. administration will choose [to establish] worthy relations with Russia.” 

(On November 13, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Medvedev offered to cancel Russia’s deployment of Iskander missiles if the Obama administration abandons its missile defense plans in Europe.  U.S Defense Secretary Robert Gates immediately dismissed Medvedev’s proposed deal.  Obama has yet to respond.)

At no time did Medvedev make note of President-elect Obama’s victory, or venture that it might contribute to better relations between the two countries.  Only late on Wednesday did Medvedev cable Obama his congratulations, expressing hope “for a constructive dialogue . . . based on trust and consideration of each other's interests.”  He finally called Obama on Saturday, and the Kremlin then issued a boilerplate communiqué announcing in diplomatic-speak that the two leaders had "expressed the determination to create constructive and positive interaction for the good of global stability and development," and to address "serious problems of a global nature."  No sign of warming there. 

Just as significantly, Putin, Medvedev’s éminence grise, has, as of this writing, said nothing publicly about Obama’s victory at all.  Medvedev’s speech and Putin’s silence seem to be calculated slights, intended to send a clear message to Obama: the United States should not take even cordial relations with Russia for granted.  Considering how much ultimately rides on cooperation between the two giant countries, this is a matter of no small import.

Why did Russia’s two highest political figures refuse to join the global festivities over Obama’s election win?  (The same might be asked about the cool reaction of the Russian press and people.)  In fact, this tepid reaction is not so surprising. Russian circles of power have traditionally associated Democratic administrations with intrusive critiques of their human rights records, but have other reasons to doubt whether the new American president will treat their country differently than the Bush administration has.  After all, the key issues that have soured Russian-American relations—the expansion of NATO into formerly Soviet terrain, and Washington’s often callous disregard for Russia’s interests, security concerns, and pride—originated during the Clinton administration.  And the missile defense system, though mostly favored by Republicans, has, through its many incarnations, garnered degrees of bipartisan support since its genesis in the 1950s.  The presence in Obama’s campaign team of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Carter-era National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, both known Russia hawks, cannot be reassuring to the Kremlin either.  During Tbilisi’s assault on South Ossetia last summer, Obama, perhaps feeling the need to sound tough on defense vis-à-vis a belligerent McCain, voiced support for bringing Georgia into NATO.  (Now even Bush administration officials are conceding that this won’t happen anytime soon.)  Fond memories of the Bush I administration, which famously struck an agreement with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastward in return for Soviet acquiescence in the peaceful reunification of Germany, now belong to a lost time of hope.  Reserves of Russian goodwill toward the United States long ago dried up.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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