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Russian Views of the Obama Reset

I have read Ivan Krastev’s curious article in the Washington Post today, and although there were some parts that weren’t quite so persuasive (Russia is not “a declining power”), he does get it right about how Washington fails to understand that many people in Russia continue to view the United States as an enemy – even with the Obama charm factor. 

So let’s say that things continue as they are now and the reset policy produces no good results as an outcome … Russia may be unintentionally encouraging a return to the old school of hostile policy unless some kind of gains are made.  Why else bother extending a hand, the next government may ask.

Where this White House may be wrong is in its understanding of Russia’s view of American power and its future role in the world. There are reasons to believe that President Dmitry Medvedev has decided to bet on Obama’s success, but Russia is not only, or even primarily, Medvedev. Russian foreign policy is profoundly shaped by the Soviet Union’s collapse and its aftermath. Russian elites tend to think about the United States today through direct analogies with the Soviet experience of the late 1980s. Many in Russia are ready to read America’s difficulties in Afghanistan as a repetition of the failure of Soviet occupation of that country and to judge the political consequences of the decline of Wall Street as similar to the effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on Soviet global influence.

For example, Igor Panarin, a professor at Moscow’s Diplomatic Academy, has gone so far as to predict the disintegrationof the United States in the next decade. His view is extreme butsymptomatic of such mind-sets. In an article in “Russia in GlobalAffairs,” Alexander Kramarenko, the head of the policy planningdepartment of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, wrote that “the current crisisin the U.S. falls in the same category as the breakup of the SovietUnion.” Russians clearly perceive America’s global influence as beingin irreversible decline and American society shattered by majorpolitical, economic and ideological crises.

Obama himself is largely viewed in Russia as the American MikhailGorbachev, but Russians are less impressed than other Europeans havebeen with Obama’s brilliance and rock-star popularity. They rememberthe Gorbi-mania that conquered the globe at the moment the Soviet Unionwas about to crumble. Russians are tempted to view Obama’s globalreformism and his progressive agenda as an expression of Americanweakness and not as an expression of America’s regained strength andlegitimacy.