This week President Dmitry Medvedev received perhaps the warmest welcome in recent memory of a Russian head of state during his visit to California and Washington DC . This warmth, fraternity, and sudden seemingly naïve trust placed into the relationship on behalf of President Barack Obama served a clear domestic political purpose: the administration is parading Medvedev as their #1 foreign policy success story. That perception, of course, depends on whom you are talking to.
The Obama Administration has been openly effusive about the visit. In the classic tradition of U.S.-Russia diplomacy, Barack invited Dmitry out for some conspicuously blue-collar burgers on Thursday, where they talked about chicken exports and their experiences updating Twitter accounts (which Obama described as “Twitters“).
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“You know, sometimes it’s odd when you’re sitting in historic meetings with your Russian counterpart to spend time talking about chicken,” Obama said to the Associated Press. “We may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.”
Medvedev has been happy to play the necessary role to help Americansforget about the BP oil spill and the ugly firing of Gen. Stanley A.McChrystal, among other shortcomings of leadership. His words werepristine, pitch perfect, andperfectly hollow, promising Russia’s commitment to a predictable andlawful investment environment, improvements to the current politicalsystem, and his unending battle to curb corruption. It would be hard todisagree with the many positive things that Medvedev said during thevisit, and it would be even harder to locate any evidence to back upthem up.
The photo op of Obama and Medvedev chowing down on burgers was eerilyreminiscent of George W. Bush’s invitation of Vladimir Putin to theBush family home at Kennebunkport, Maine in 2007 (the first ever for aforeign head of state) for a lobster-and-hot-dogs summit. At the time, Bush remarked, “One thing I’ve found about VladimirPutin is that he is consistent, transparent, honest, and is an easy manto discuss our opportunities and our problems with.”
In fact, there is not much revolutionary or unprecedented about theseswings back and forth in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Long-timeRussia watcher Steve LeVine has pondered whether the administration issuffering “a case of amnesia” in all their “high-fiving” to celebratethe fruits of the reset: “such intimate meetings between Americanbusinessmen and Russian leaders go back at least as far as the MikhailGorbachev-era Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev met with oilexecutives regularly, including from Chevron, for instance, as theysought to buy rights to the Tengiz oilfield.”
The truth is that almost nothing in Russia has changed outside ofsymbolic gestures. Democratic freedoms are still on total lock down,while a protest movement seeking only to protect their minimalconstitutional rights is being crushed with a surplus of brutality.Energy imperialism has advanced unencumbered, most notably with discounted gas in exchange for an extended leaseon a Black Sea naval base in Ukraine, a partially deserved gas supply cut to Belarus, interference in South European pipelinealternatives, and even a careful attempt to monopolize the fuel supply to the Manas airbase inKyrgyzstan. Political prisoners are still on trial, businessmen areimprisoned and in some cases killed while those responsible remainunpunished, while some of the worst criminals are swiftly pardoned and let backonto the streets. The signing of a replacement of the START treaty isbeing described as a huge and unnecessaryconcession by the Americans with out any clear goal. Even the mostrespected Russia experts in the administration are unable to provide asatisfactory explanation on the current situation in Georgia, whereRussia remains in open violation of a ceasefire agreement, occupyingterritories which no real governments recognize as independent.
No one would dispute that a “reset” has not occurred – there isobviously a change in the relationship, and it is Washington that hasshifted toward accommodation. The key bragging point on behalf of theObama administration is that they have achieved cooperation andconsensus with Moscow on Iran – though exactly what this consists ofremains a mystery. it’s important to note that the talks on Iran didnot arise out of a change of heart in the Kremlin, but rather a more subtle form of bribery to the siloviki, whenWashington removed several key revenue vehicles from asanctions blacklist, such as arms exporter Rosoboronexport, TulaInstrument Design Bureau, and several other companies closely linked toPutin’s inner circle.
Kurt Volcker, a former ambassador to NATO, saw right through thisruse in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal: “I just don’t thinkthe Russians see things that way. (…) They will pocket whatever gainthey get on one issue–thinking that it was long-deserved–and thensensing the gains, press for even more.”
The reasons behind the Obama-Medvedev burger summit have something todo with the fact that both leaders are experiencing a mutuallydecreasing ability to manage international outcomes, from Kyrgyzstan toIran to China. On the Russian side, there is the pain of a 41% drop in foreign direct investment last year,and an economic contraction of almost 8%, leading to the more “businessfriendly” doctrine of foreign relations (as explained in the leaked Newsweekdocument). Back in Washington, for those drinking the Kool-Aid, thereappears to be a sincere belief that relations have turned a corner, thatthe Russians mean what they say when they make these promises, and thatthis area of foreign policy is one of the government’s biggest successstories.
Having a camera down on the ocean floor to capture the sickeningeruption of oil certainly produced a sense of urgency in the U.S.president. Perhaps we should consider putting some streaming camerasall over Russia as well, to watch the show trials, beaten protesters,murdered journalists, and disappeared North Caucasians, which may atleast bring a sense of balance to all the self-congratulation inWashington this week.
Somebody in this government needs to wake up and smell the coffee,and take note that it is not Russia nor the relationship that has beenreset, but rather Obama himself. If all the high-fiving continues, itis likely to be very short-lived, and looked back upon withembarrassment.