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Obama and the Not-so-New Cold War

I like Michael Idov.  Even when I disagree with his opinions on certain trends in Russia, which is not infrequent, I’m left with the impression of hard-earned restraint. His article posted to The New Republic today examining the choices President Obama will face in handling Russian bombast is typically well written, and not without flaws in logic.

In this piece, Idov priotizes the key problem areas in U.S.-Russia relations for the next president:  1) NATO enlargement for Georgia and the Ukraine, 2) Iran’s nuclear ambitions, 3) the Arctic territorial dispute, and 4) repairing the image of the U.S. among Russians. 


On NATO, he argues that Obama should do nothing to reverse the moves made by Germanyto bury the possibility of MAP status.  Why? The Ukraine isastonishingly vulnerable to the Kremlin’s leverage (Gazprom,passportization, and their funding of an opposition party) as well asGeorgia, and the best time to pick up the NATO issue would be afterrelations improve.  Idov writes that “If Obama were to continue the Bush policy, it would help validate the Kremlin’s fiction of “Russia as a besieged fortress”– the very fiction that fortifies the current regime.

On Russia’s favorite pasttime of running interferenceon any successful international action on Iran, Idov’s suggestion makesmore sense – let the Russians grab all the credit they want if anyprogress is achieved through multilateral talks.  But Obama will haveto figure out a way to around the state’s corpro-crats and siloviki:  “the question of sanctions, for Russia, is a simple matter of how much business it is willing to lose.

Idov, self-aware, is less charitable on the Arctic claim, recommedingthat Obama not give in to this “unprecedented bullshit.” (!)  The next president shouldwork with other Arctic states to bring the tone over their territoryback into the realm of sanity.  Lastly, instead of discussing somethinglike the missile shield or the wargames down inVenezuela, Idov believes it’s a priority for Obama to wield his allegedly outsizedcharm to woo average Russians away from the anti-American and hatepropaganda being churned out by the state, and build an atmosphere oftrust.

I’m sure it’s pretty predictable where we would fall on many of these assumptions and recommendations.  Over the past month we’ve seen no shortage of advice for Obama on handling all the prickly issues of foreign policy, and I believe that at least in the Russia camp, these opinions fall into two categories:  those who believe it is the responsibility of the United States to make all sorts of changes to stave off this not-so-new Cold War, and those who believe it’s time to bring honesty and transparency to the table by calling the Russian bluff.  The former position implies a level of rationality to recent Russian actions and provocations, while the later fails to assign any level of accountability on behalf of the United States in improving relations.

Let’s take for example the argument and operative assumption that Russia is governed by “extreme realpolitik” – ideology means nothing, and everything they say and do is rational and aimed at producing outcomes.  At this blog we’ve definitely agreed with the whole “lack of a real ideology” argument at times.  That said, it is altogether another issue if you aren’t buying the rhetorical windowdressing of Russia’s national project and vision for multipolar world (and renewed spheres of influence), but it’s another issue whether or not the Kremlin actually believes it.

There are a number of indications, as faulty as the logic may be, that Moscow very much sees itself as a promoter of a competing world system, and though not as clear cut as the epically opposing Cold War ideologies, I believe that statements made by both Putin and Medvedev have made it exceptionally clear what kind of thinking is guiding their policy preferences.

The assumption that Russia’s current foreign policy is rational is problematic.  When exactly, for example, did the issue of NATO enlargement become viewed as something intolerable?  Russia has peacefully shared a border with the alliance since 1949 (Alaska), and even shared a long border with Turkey during the nastiest heights of the Cold War without incident.  When NATO expanded into the Baltics, there were no complaints or protests, and in fact, the economic growth and stability afforded to these new members arguably benefitted Russia enormously in terms of both security and economic growth.

Also, in terms of a real “values gap,” there are some that would beg to differ with Idov.  As reported today, a sizable gather of Russian conservatives from the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University have roundly rejected the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and has insisted on the primacy of the Orthodox church and the authoritarian state over the liberty of the individual:  “I am deeply convinced that the conception of humanrights varies from one culture to another, from one society to another,inasmuch as the very concept of the person varies,” says politicalscientist Aleksandr Dugin.

OK, perhaps we can accept that this group only represents a marginal section of society (Richard Pipes may disagree).  However we still have the question of what the policy of bellicose confrontation is doing for Russia, vs. the benefits it brings for its leaders.  In terms of manipulating and fragmenting Europe, it is tremendously successful – seemingly out of fear of what the crazy yet “rational” men in the Kremlin might do, the EU unilaterally decided to backtrack on its commitment to the terms of the Georgia ceasefire (implying that future invasions will be tolerated), Germany brought the axe down on NATO, and the problems of energy supply and the PCA remain in delightfully successful suspended animation.

In many other respects, the current Russian foreign policy is failing dramatically, and causing extraordinary damage to her image abroad and trust in her leadership to maintain stability, protect investors, and administer justice.  Look no further than how poorly the country has faired in the economic crisis – despite being better prepared than any single other nation in terms of foreign reserves.  The bailouts are not working, as the rapid ruble flight from the economy is creating extraorindary inflationary pressure, market dessimation, and, finally, the nail in the coffin, a sovereign credit downgrading from S&P to nearly junk status – the very first victim of the crisis.

Some, but not all, of these economic developments reflect the very high assessments of political risk, which has worsened considerably since the summer.  It’s difficult to think of another moment in which Russia were more isolated by the democracies of the world – and their call to arms for recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still received with cold silence.

So for as much as Obama may be eager to be liked, and as eager as many of us are to see the United States achieve a change in image abroad, it is Russia who one hopes will work a little harder to soften this confrontational reputation.  But perhaps the most important thing for Obama to remember is that to a great extent Russian foreign policy is driven by domestic politics (a frequent argument of Robert Amsterdam) – that the confrontation, the missiles, NATO, the multipolar world, and the ships in Venezuela and the Panama Canal reflect an insecurity on behalf of the leadership, and a domestic expediency to maintain a personal grip on power.

Photo: A Russian peackeeping soldier stands guard while others dismantle the Karaleti checkpoint on October 7, 2008. Russian forces will begin pulling back from six checkpoints in a buffer zone near the Georgian rebel region of South Ossetia, a Russian army spokesman said. (AFP/Getty Images)