A Threatening Farewell from U.S.-Russia Summitry

medvedobama070909.jpgCharles Krauthammer at the Washington Post is catching a lot of flak for his article today which argued that Obama’s reset diplomacy with Russia and the new agreements to cut nuclear stockpiles was somehow a gesture of capitulation, selling the farm, etc.  I personally find any pro-nuclear, pro-weapons arguments a little hard to swallow (the pro-nuke fellows do not sufficiently account for the threat of non-state actors getting their hands on these materials), but Krauthammer makes a very good point about the Kremlin’s success in creating linkage between offensive and defensive weaponry.

Leaving the predictable arguments aside for a moment, Krauthammer’s article is driven by a core question that has been coming up again and again and Obama as Medvedev whisked from Moscow to L’Aquila.  Is Washington wasting its time by trying to work with Russia?  Is the current leadership in Moscow really interested in improved relations, and despite what are logical and rational mutual interests, is there any real will?

Most of the time we prefer to believe them when the Kremlin says they want improved relations, but time, patience, and excuses are running out for self-sabotage. Today’s news doesn’t help much.  Just in case anybody thought the summitry was going a little too well, Medvedev concluded his affable week with Obama by resurrecting a threat to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad (as though the regular threats to bomb Warsaw weren’t enough).
Take a moment to recall the original embarrassingly timed and tactically miscalculated threat from November, 2008, way back when Obama had just won his historic election, with world leaders from Iran to Zimbabwe to Venezuela expressing (at minimum) cautious goodwill and congratulations that a new chapter might open in relations.  Then, like a lightning bolt struck into the middle of America’s short-lived euphoric picnic, came the Kaliningrad move.  The siloviki can be such party poopers.

Both then and now, the theories explaining such a confusing move are abundant.

Last November, we heard many different opinions on why the Russians would want to open the new chapter with the incoming administration on such a sour note.  Some people thought it was just a creative attempt at creating a bargaining chip – giving the Kremlin the option later on to offer to cancel its plans for the Iskanders in exchange for something else.  Others saw a domestic focus, with the goal of keeping alive the myth of the military menace while also painting Obama into a corner.  There could also be the theory that Russia is worried about Kaliningrad straying out of the RF, and could help stir some nationalism with some good old fashioned major arms movements (indeed, it even sprouted a tourist industry).

One of the more interesting things I found in this blog’s archives on this issue was a letter to the Wall Street Journal from a former military officer, which argued that Washington should just go ahead and let Russia move Iskanders to Kaliningrad, as there would be no harm in this (the possibility of them daring to escalate too remote) while at the same time the government goes bankrupt again.  Calling in the bluffs, as it were.

The sudden and unexpected revival of the Kaliningrad threat following the G8 Summit appears to signify something different to me:  the price that Medvedev is having to pay for success.

Sources in Russia I have spoken with this week talk about the president being under tremendous pressure from competing groups of elites in the Kremlin.  I wouldn’t even rule out if the statement was pre-cleared with the American delegation.  When Obama arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the week, he made clear delineations between liberals and hawks within the government, pledging to work with and encourage the former, while disapproving of the latter, who have “one foot in the past.”  At least in tentative terms, Medvedev’s approach is working – Russia will get more of what it wants from Washington if they follow his perestroika-lite – and this infuriates the nationalists.  When we hear Medvedev suddenly going bellicose and talking about Kaliningrad, he speaking to a very specific audience.

Getting back to the core question of whether or not the United States and Europe can even take what Russia is saying about its interests in cooperation at face value, I am disturbed by the very strong contrast between the Kaliningrad threat and the very open and encouraging comments from U.S. military officials on building a joint defense base inside Russia.  Are we witnessing some kind of self-sabotage?  An attempt to derail a project that they didn’t want to happen anyway, but require that its failure by the fault of the United States?

With regards to motives and intentions, Russia is running out of time to play games on these reasonable offers to do the missile base jointly, or their refusal to sign up on the anti-nuke proliferation pressure on Iran, which would guarantee the cancelling of the Polish and Czech missile shield.

What we are watching appears to be game of who can make the other player behave irrationally first.

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  1. penny
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone point out one relevant action rather than words in advancing a civil society that Medvedev has accomplished? He has done nothing to change the judicial system. He has done nothing about state censorship. He has done nothing about United Russia’s political monopoly, the exclusion of candidates and rigged elections. He has not allowed a public forum for the liberal opposition. He hasn’t protected them from threats and physical attacks.Medvedev is simply Putin’s puppet. He’s a handy PR ploy to give a false sense of change both at home and abroad. Most Russians have figured it out. Obama hasn’t. Triangulating Putin and Medvedev is a waste of time. It would have been better to hold Medvedev’s feet to the fire and flush out this transparent Putin game.

  2. Posted July 11, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree – when you hear about this kind of “Operation Watchdog” stuff, we are reminded of just how distantly far Russia is away from any type of “liberalization.”http://www.theotherrussia.org/2009/06/03/chronicling-repression-how-russian-police-blacklist-the-opposition/However I think that Obama taking the best strategy possible – split the Kremlin to change the environment, pushing the siloviki out bit by bit. If he holds the feet to the power, Obama helps to create unity and consensus in the Kremlin, and proves the hardliners right.

  3. rkka
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it must be frustrating that those who bleat in English about the lack of “Civil Society” have not figured out that they need to expand their appeal to actual Russians. Get past the “eeevul Putin/powerless Medvedev” thing and offer Russians things they will like. Here’s a hint: as long as American Republicans merely fulminated about “that eevul FDR” they got nowhere. Starting with Eisenhower, they accepted the transformation caused by the New Deal and learned how to win in the new environment.Russia is a different place than it was in the 1990s. Actual Russians like a lot of the differences. Accept it. Deal with it. Figure out the foundations of Putin’s genuine popularity, and then figure out how to trump his aces.

  4. Posted July 11, 2009 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Rkka – are you a Putin supporter? I had not yet picked up on that yet. :)

  5. rkka
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Well, if folks want to live in a political fantasy world where Putin’s popularity is attributed merely to propaganda and his stoking of anti-Americanism, instead of in actual accomplishments that have improved the lives of Russians, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.

  6. Posted July 12, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    RKKA:”expand their appeal to actual Russians”I have to hand it to you, that’s the single most simultaneously ignorant and dishonest phrase I’ve seen written about Russia so far this year.What planet are you on? Are you aware the the Kremlin banned Barack Obama’s NES speech from being broadcast on state-owned television? How DARE you complain about speaking to the people of Russia when we are not ALLOWED to do so by the Kremlin?Perhaps you’d also suggest that Russia should have “appealed” to “actual Nazis” in Germany rather than fighting them. I doubt many “actual Russians” would agree with you on that point.When the world wonders how Russia can be outside the top 150 world nations for adult lifespan and working for $3/hour on average, it needs only gape at the utter nonsense babbled by “friends” of Russia such as the likes of you for its explanation.

  7. rkka
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Phoby, Phoby, Phoby…Well, before Putin, these same Russians made $20/month, paid years in arrears, so $3/hour must look pretty good by comparison. Oh, and Russia’s birth rate is up ~20% since Putin took over, and male life expectancy is up.You see Phoby, I am careful with facts, and place them in context.Unlike you, and the hateful bile you spew.

  8. Junichiro
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Russian oligarchs should set up a type of competition of who gets to exterminate LaRussophobe/Kim Zigfeld first. The Winner of course gets the de facto title of Hero of the Russian Federation.This will surely be very interesting!

  9. rkka
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Naah…. Phoby ain’t worth the trouble, and is actually kinda entertaining, watching her own impotent bile tie her in knots.The dogs bark. The caravan passes.

  10. James
    Posted July 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    @JunichiroI think it would be nice if you could limit your sunny banter to stop short of hate speech and advocating violence.