Despite the smiles and positive tone of their Russian hosts, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived to their meeting today at the Kremlin, the air must have been pregnant with low expectations. The warmth from Moscow strikes a contrast with the frustration shown by Gates, who only hours before had complained to reporters on the plane that he was tired of making overly generous offers which fell on deaf ears. But President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Medvedev could afford to both play good cop today, knowing full well that by this time next year Gates and Rice will be lucky if they can continue their complaining about Russia at sparsely attended think tank forums.
The fact that a visit two of the top U.S. security officials to Moscow is not even taken seriously is a dramatic illustration of the failure of Russia policy under the Bush Doctrine, capping off many years now of wasted opportunities, mishandled situations, and outright ineptitude as Putin’s bureautocracy has outmaneuvered Washington to establish significant footholds in nearly every geopolitical direction. The courtesy visit paid by Rice and Gates today looks like a bad end to a bad relationship – yet we still have 10 months to go before the next president is inaugurated. Can the upcoming presidential cabinets on both sides learn from this abject disappointment?Before my readers fire away with hostile emails over my pessimistic characterization of these meetings, I wish to point out that Secretary Gates did indeed voice his optimism that a satisfactory missile deal could be reached by the end of the year, a comment which surely went better than the jokes over his broken arm. Secretary Rice was able to get an important reading on how the Medvedev-Putin dynamic will work (here’s a hint: Putin is still in charge). Perhaps the best news is that they were only made to wait five minutes before being allowed the privilege of visiting with the president instead of waiting forty minutes like last time.I am also very much in favor of maximizing strategic engagement as a cornerstone of foreign policy, so these ongoing high-level meetings with Russia should never be scrapped simply because little progress is expected. If we look at the critical failing of the foreign policy of the Bush Doctrine, we can see how expensive their inclination toward non-engagement or conditional meetings has become – increasing the leverage of Moscow as it seizes a role as an “indispensable” interlocutor to patch up our failed relationships (i.e., Iran). Did anyone ever think that this negotiator wouldn’t bring their own agenda to the table?In this particular meeting, Washington showed its continuing inability to grasp what real political cards Putin is holding and what remain outstanding bluffs. The tone of the proceedings was set by the Kremlin, with the president assuming the confident posture of a leader given yet another generally popular mandate from the tightly controlled election of his right-hand man. For the Time magazine person of the year, the message to Washington was “I deserve a nice offer now.”President Bush complied with a generous letter, which seemed to be exactly what Putin had hoped for. Perhaps after his last prestigious invitation to the Bush family home at Kennebunkport, Maine, Putin was becoming used to getting pleasant surprises from Washington right when relations are at the lowest point. The American sources say that the letter dealt with the agenda for the meetings, while a Russian source told ITAR-TASS that the letter was about the two presidents’ legacies. The latter case certainly could be true, as the two presidents have carried out remarkably similar policy projects in some respects: sovereign democracy and unitary executive, Siberian gulags and Guantanamo, and the establishment of vastly expanded roles of the security services.The Russians have scored a victory in that this visit is primarily being used to laboriously go over details of the U.S. proposal to install an anti-ballistic missile shield system in Eastern Europe – strategically they much prefer to distract these meetings toward these unresolvable issues, rather than discuss the dismantling of democracy, abuses of human rights, and the misuse the administrative resources of the state and state-owned companies for personal enrichment, and bullying. Moscow is looking vastly more intelligent than Washington these days, and continue to ply their trade in creating global problems, and then offering solutions in exchange for a concession. The United States has consistently refused to identify how Russia can play a role in advancing its own interests in a cooperative manner. For example, it is clear that they do not want another nuclear-armed state in their near abroad – much less do they want to see Iran’s natural gas supply see development. They want to maintain their swing position on these issues for as long as possible.Russia has real and legitimate security concerns such as NATO expansion, yet much diplomacy and hyperbole is wasted on peripheral, secondary foreign policy issues which are motivated more out of a domestic political necessity to “get respect” as a global leader once again. But that’s only one of the reasons why the missile shield negotiations are a red herring. Moscow knows full well that the proposed sites of the missile shield would make an anti-ballistic attempt on any missile leaving Russia a mathematical impossibility, and Washington’s unending willingness to consult and warn Moscow each step of the way in this process has not been matched by any semblance of cooperation or interest (this is a strong contrast to many of Russia’s “surprises” such as testing new missiles, restarting bomber flyovers, and buzzing aircraft carriers).This is all not to mention that the missile shield is plainly a stupid idea with the way things stand right now. Investing millions in protecting Europe from missiles that do not yet exist with technology that does not exist with political support that does not yet exist is not good politics. Russia has inappropriately exploited this move for other purposes, but they certainly are not solely responsible for the great distraction.Even before Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and had his oil company stolen by the state, the Kremlin had figured out that business is power in today’s geopolitics. Now with oil trading above $100 a barrel, the day of the resource nationalists has arrived in a thundering boom, bringing unpredictable private sector elements into high-level interstate relations. The missile shield is irrelevant because Russia has already figured out that it won’t try to compete in a new arms race. Even when the military saber rattling happens, such as the resumption of the bomber long haul flights, the Americans seem unworried and even perplexed. “If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said regarding the 1980s-built bombers.Meanwhile, Gazprom zips up deals everywhere from Venezuela and Bolivia to Canada and Nigeria, while a new sovereign wealth fund starts snapping up foreign securities. Russia isn’t looking to out-gun anyone, but rather own them.The diplomatic challenge of the U.S. missile shield in relations with Russia is a direct by-product the foreign policy blunders of the Bush Doctrine. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots: the shield is designed to address a worsening security concern with Iran, which has arguably been caused by their dramatically increased regional role thanks to the colossally stupid U.S. invasion of Iraq. Russia has acted as Iran’s guardian in the United Nations and has helped them develop civilian nuclear technology as a move to greatly strengthen their role as a major player in the Middle East. Washington’s failure to respond positively to Putin’s unprecedented security cooperation following 9/11 will go down as the greatest wasted opportunity in recent history.It is a familiar but enduringly true portrait: that in 2001 both Russia and the United States were at a dramatically important crossroads, both about to go through a series of changes that could fundamentally redefine the relationship. In the years since, we all know what has happened instead.The next president of the United States will need to make a careful revision of what has happened to Russia policy during the disaster of the two Bush administrations, and understand how to get things back on track in the context of the bigger picture. It is true that Bush’s mismanagement of the economy (culminating either with the cost of the Iraq war or the massive sub-prime hemorrhaging of the markets with Bears Stearns) has made the United States significantly weaker abroad, but it is not true that Washington doesn’t continue to have functional leverage to bring Moscow around to its policy preferences. It isn’t about giving everything away and settling for less, and it most certainly isn’t about “Letting the Russians sort out Russia” as has been preposterously suggested, but rather Washington will need to focus on winning over some critical partners and getting smart in its engagement with a problematic Kremlin.The days of unilateralism might be over thanks to Bush, but reasonable and skillful partnerships with current and future allies can help draw countries like Russia back into the fold of legalism.