The Ripon Forum

Volume 43, No. 3

Summer 2009 Issue

To Russia with Hope

By on December 3, 2015

(…and little else)


President Obama’s visit to Moscow July 6-8 did not result in serious agreements, but it changed the tone of U.S.– Russian relations. Whether or not this is a good thing, however, is very much open to doubt.

Obama made a serious attempt to befriend the Russian leadership. He praised the “extraordinary work” that Putin has done for the Russian people and took seriously Medvedev’s vow to strengthen the rule of law. He also promised to take into consideration Russia’s “peculiar” view of its relations with Georgia and Ukraine and to inform the Russian leaders about the upcoming U.S. evaluation of the missile shield planned for Eastern Europe.

In fact, however, Obama may have set a trap for himself. The Russians said that they were ready for the U.S. to “reset” its relations with Moscow, but it was taken as obvious that a reset on the Russian side was not desirable or necessary.

This is actually not surprising. Direct or indirect apologies for U.S. behavior are interpreted in Russia not as the first step toward a dialogue but as U.S. confirmation of the rightness of Russian positions. The result of Obama’s outreach may therefore be that once the era of good feelings has passed and Obama is obliged to make hard decisions, his conciliatory gestures will be treated as another example of treacherous behavior on the part of the U.S.

Direct or indirect apologies for U.S. behavior are interpreted in Russia not as the first step toward a dialogue but as U.S. confirmation of the rightness of Russian positions.

The first potential conflict is over the plans for the U.S. anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. If the present feasibility study shows that the system is workable, steps will very likely be taken toward its deployment. This will inevitably inspire furious Russian claims that the U.S. promised to cancel the installation. Of course, the U.S. did no such thing. But by telling the Russians that they would be consulted on the results of the feasibility studies, Obama introduced enough ambiguity in the U.S. public position for the Russians to claim that they were assured of a voice in the system’s fate. It is not accidental that on state-controlled television after Obama’s second day of talks, the Russians described the discussions on the missile shield as a prelude to an American decision to drop it altogether.

A similar problem exists with the issue of NATO expansion. Russian spokesmen and those who echo their position in the West have suggested a grand deal according to which Russia is ceded control over the former Soviet republics and in return, Russia helps the West with Afghanistan and Iran. As a seeming down payment on this arrangement, the Russians agreed to allow the U.S. to transport military supplies and personnel for Afghanistan across Russia. The transport agreement was presented as a favor to the U.S., although the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan is also crucial to Russian security. But this “favor,” because it does not reflect common values, can be withdrawn at any time. This is likely to happen once the U.S. takes steps to facilitate NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In the meantime, the existence of this land bridge will serve as a source of pressure on the U.S.

Finally, the U.S. is rightly concerned with the Russian human rights situation. Part of the reason for this concern is humanitarian. But there is also a strategic rationale for protesting Russian human rights abuses. A country where the population is without political rights and subjected to endless official propaganda is too easy to turn against the West.

While in Moscow, Obama not only praised the Russian leaders who have constructed an authoritarian regime, he also declined to mention individual cases of political repression in his meetings with opposition groups and representatives of civil society. The emptiness of this approach was demonstrated only two weeks later when Natalya Estemirova, a human rights defender in Chechnya, was abducted and murdered. She was a close associate of two murdered human rights defenders, Anna Politkovskaya, and lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, neither of whose cases were raised by Obama.

If the killing of political opponents in Russia continues, Obama may feel obliged to make a public protest. But once a pattern has been set it can prove difficult to change. In return for Putin’s supposed “friendship,” Bush muted U.S. criticism of Russian human rights abuses and atrocities in Chechnya for almost eight years. If Obama does not begin to speak out forcefully on the terror tactics being used against human rights defenders in Russia, it will be difficult to do so later.

Bush distrusted the outside world – perhaps too much. Obama shows signs of distrusting it too little. Most of the countries that are adversaries of the U.S. are in that position because they rely on systems that are based on force. They are prepared to make allowances for resistance, but are little moved by appeals to their better natures.

As Obama is about to find out, an outreach to adversaries that cannot be maintained has very dim prospects. It may, in the long run, only make matters worse. RF

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).

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