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
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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.

The question then arises: what should the incoming Obama administration do to improve relations with Russia?  Bearing on this are the nature and aspirations of the present Russian regime – a regime that seems likely to remain in power for a long time.  True, the (chaotic) freedom Russia knew under Yeltsin is no more.  The press has been emasculated, and political opposition dispensed with or marginalized.  But by most indices, some of the United States’ closest allies, such as the Gulf states and most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, rank as poorly as Russia does, or worse, with respect to human rights.  China is still nominally Communist, but can anyone imagine the United States showing it the kind of disregard that the Bush II and Clinton administrations have displayed toward Russia?  There are obviously pressing economic and strategic reasons for treating China carefully.  The same holds true for Russia.

And what of Russia’s heavy-handed actions in its “near abroad?”  Do they make Russia unworthy of Western partnership?  By all appearances Russia is seeking not to conquer or subjugate Europe, let alone the West, but to reestablish its role as the dominant power in some—not all—of the domains of the formerly Soviet and tsarist-era Russian empire, and protect what Medvedev has termed the country’s “privileged interests.”  That Russia claims “privileged interests” in Eurasia poses problems for Western leadership circles that seek to woo countries away from Russia, largely to assure access to those countries’ massive hydrocarbon reserves rather than for any reasons pertaining to “support for democracy.” Humiliations inflicted by the West on Russia in the 1990s continue to stoke nationalist sentiment, and ensure that the Kremlin’s efforts in safeguarding its “privileged interests” enjoy popular Russian support. 

“Privileged interests” might be a phrase of recent coinage, but the issue is age-old.  Since Russia’s transformation from an eastern European confederation of Slavic princedoms (Kievan Rus’), in the Middle Ages, into a multiethnic empire stretching across sparsely populated, resource-endowed terrain from Europe almost to Alaska, Russian leaders have conflated security, stability, and prosperity with dominance of “their” part of Eurasia, much as the United States has considered the Western hemisphere inherently its own (hence the Monroe Doctrine).  The United States—geographically distant, culturally remote, and eyed by most former Soviet citizens with suspicion (especially in Muslim Central Asia)—can do little to stop Russia from reasserting itself in its “near abroad.”  Even if Russia is taking a beating in the financial crisis, its energy reserves guarantee it a measure of independence that will confound Western attempts to pressure or counter it. 

In view of all these factors, what steps can the United States take to redefine its approach to Russia, and show that it means business? First, Obama should seek to overturn the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007, which advocates, and allocates funding for, the accession of Georgia and Ukraine. NATO expansion hardly made the news in the United States until the Russia-Georgia war, but it has stoked unprecedented suspicion, incredulity, and even ire both in the Kremlin and among the Russian population at large.  American and European assurances that NATO expansion “isn’t directed at Russia” sound fatuous, laden with the tone-deaf arrogance of their bearers.  NATO was created to counter the Soviet threat, and its expansion is meant to check Russia’s potential for reviving its influence beyond its borders.  But to end the “Russia threat,” the West needs to engage Moscow as a partner.  Sooner rather than later, Obama should decisively announce that NATO will grow no further, citing, perhaps, the expense involved in bringing the Ukrainian and Georgian militaries up to speed, and the many strategic problems those two countries would pose as members. 

Second, Obama should put a halt to U.S. missile defense plans.  He has not been very forthcoming on this subject, though he has stated that he will evaluate the program based on its cost and likely effectiveness. Those two factors alone should doom it, and could serve as adequate reasons for its termination, without reference to Russian objections.  For those who don’t know: if “missile defense” sounds innocuous, the system—even limited to only ten interceptors, as plans have it now—in fact would grant the United States potential offensive leeway vis-à-vis Russia, in that it could conceivably serve to shoot down the few Russian missiles that would survive an American first strike.  True, this presupposes that Russia would not launch its rockets upon determining that it was under attack.  But what if the technology substantially improves?  What would stop the United States from increasing deployment of interceptors in bases already established?  In any case, a U.S. missile defense capability would amount to one more aspect of the Pentagon’s sought-after “full-spectrum dominance.”  Basing this system so close to Russia makes it inherently provocative, especially in view of Russia’s aging nuclear arsenal and decaying military. 

The third matter that the Obama administration must address concerns, more broadly, America’s role in the world, about which President Obama should initiate a national dialogue.  Will America pursue hegemonic policies that date back to the end of the Second World War?  Or will it truly aspire to help fashion a revitalized, more just, world order, in which Russia is a partner rather than an adversary?  Here Obama has his work cut out for him.  He could start by repudiating the Bush administration’s two National Security Strategies.  The Strategy of 2002 announced, “[American] forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States” (thereby abandoning deterrence, the key peacekeeping principle of the Cold War).  And the Strategy of 2006 declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” – an unstated threat to the autocratic regime Putin has established in Russia, and in fact a threat to any country the United States deems oppressive.  Obama should issue his own Strategy, one that pays due attention to principles of international cooperation and respect for the rule of law by all—including the United States.  If America wishes to confront terrorism and stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it will need the help of other countries – most notably Russia.

In devising a new Strategy, the U.S. defense budget should come under intense scrutiny.  It is only in support of hegemonic policies that America can justify spending $695 billion on weapons and wars, as it did during the fiscal year 2008.  The Western press has taken notice of the military build-up Putin has begun, but this has amounted to raising the Russian defense budget from $25 billion in 2006 to a projected $50 billion in 2009—a figure that, even with $100 billion a year flowing into state coffers from petroleum receipts, the Kremlin would presumably be happy to reduce.  The U.S., facing no threat of Soviet magnitude, should cut back its defense expenditures and redirect taxpayer dollars to other priorities. 

Like it or not, the United States cannot solve crucial global problems without Russian participation.  Russia commands the largest landmass on earth; possesses vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and other natural resources; owns huge stockpiles of weapons and plutonium; and still wields a potent brain trust.  Given its influence in Iran and North Korea, to say nothing of its potential as a spoiler of international equilibrium elsewhere, Russia is one country with which the United States would do well to reestablish a strong working relationship—a strategic partnership, even—regardless of its feelings about the current Kremlin government.  The need to do so trumps expanding NATO or pursuing “full-spectrum dominance.”

Once the world financial crisis passes, we will find ourselves returning to worries about resource depletion, environmental degradation, and global warming – the greatest challenges facing humanity.  No country can confront these problems alone.  For the United States, Russia may just prove the “indispensable nation” with which to face a volatile future arm in arm.

Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.
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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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