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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

Obama’s Visit to Russia in Retrospect

Why Moscow Refuses to Fall in Line with Washington

Monday 27 July 2009, by S Nihal Singh


The short point to US President Barack Obama’s first visit to Russia in his new avatar is that he forgot to reset the button before leaving Washington. To say “forgot” is to indulge in euphemism because the American foreign policy-making elite has no intention of fulfilling what Vice-President Joe Biden initially promised in resetting the button in relations with Russia.

True, the US and Russia took the first steps in agreeing to reduce their gargantuan nuclear arsenals to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), and Russia made an important gesture in opening up its airspace to NATO soldiers and armaments engaged in Afghan operations. But there was no American give on the two touchstones of US intentions in Moscow’s eyes: the missile plans on Russia’s doorstep in Poland and the Czech Republic and proposals, in abeyance, to take Ukraine and Georgia into North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

America’s policy towards Russia and Europe and the world was set in the dying days of the Soviet Union. With the USSR morphing into the Russian Federation, a nation losing its ideology and philosophical compass and grasping at new mantras of existence and prosperity, the US reigned supreme. And an erratic Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, virtually outsourced his domestic and foreign policies to Washington.

The wise man of American diplomacy, George Kennan, pleaded with his countrymen not to re-divide the European continent by retaining and expanding the Cold War military organisation, NATO. Helmut Kohl, then the West German Chancellor, and James Baker, the US Secretary of State, solemnly promised Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President, that in return for Moscow’s assent for the reunion of the two Germanys, there would be no eastward expansion of NATO.

But these promises dissolved in mist in the truimphalism that prevailed in political Washington. In the American idiom, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had disintegrated and the defeat of the USSR was complete. Old promises would not stop the victory march of the US nor would Kennan, the conscience of American policy, stem the imperialistic urges of Washington. The objective became the containment of what remained of the Soviet Union for as long into the future as possible.

Russian red lines were crossed with abandon. NATO welcomed the former Communist states as also the Baltic states, and those admitted to the European Union cocked their snook at Moscow because they now belonged to the club of winners in the Cold War. For Moscow, plans developed by the Bush Administration to have a missile defence mechanism were meant further to contain Russia, and Moscow drew a new red line on the admission to NATO of Ukraine and Georgia.


Against this setting, the absence of euphoria over President Obama’s visit, in sharp contrast to his reception elsewhere on the European continent, was no surprise. For Moscow, it was good to hear an American President talk of cooperation, rather than confrontation. But the old Russian saying—“trust, but verify”—President Ronald Reagan was so fond of repeating holds good today, as it did yesterday.

The moral of the story is that the post-Cold War architecture the US is seeking to consolidate is being challenged by Russia and President Obama has given no indication thus far that he is prepared to make room for a resurgent Russia. It is not all Yeltsin’s fault, but he proved a disaster for his country seeking to find new moorings. Whatever one might say about the authoritarian tendencies of Vladimir Putin, he put his country back on track in his eight years of presidency.

Although Dmitry Medvedev has assumed the presidency, Putin in the Prime Minister’s job remains a powerful figure. And the thrust of Russian policy remains what it was in the Putin era. Russia has its interests and will fight to safeguard them, whether in relations with the US or with Europe or the world. In Russian eyes, it is strange logic that a distant power can claim the right to set up bases and special relationships with former constituents of the Soviet Union, yet Moscow’s efforts in a similar direction are dismissed as ploys for reviving the old empire.

Given this scenario, President Obama needs to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new world architecture. America’s desire to conduct relations with Russia on its own terms will not wash simply because Moscow refuses to fall in line with the lowly status Washington would grant it. Fine words are no substitute for policy shifts. The African continent might find President Obama’s visit to Ghana and his rhetoric inspirational and evocative of the coming of age of the Black man, but Russia is not Africa.

Until the US policy-making establishment is prepared to make basic changes in its view of the post-Cold War world, improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow will remain limited. There are obvious areas of agreement between the two Cold War reivals on non-proliferation, fighting terrorism and in lifting the emerging world out of poverty. But Moscow has given sufficient warning that it will react if its vital interests are threatened.

Which brings us back to the central problem facing President Obama. On two key issues that will determine his legacy to a large extent, he must fight his main battles at home. In bringing an end to the seminal Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he must battle the almost impregnable American Jewish lobby to give justice to the Palestinians. And on relations with the Russian Federation, he must confront the conventional wisdom of the policy-making establishment in the Beltway that has defined US interests in the post-Cold War world.

The Bush Administration might have defined American interests bluntly as its right of pre-emptive attack on any nation of its choice, but this philosophy still remains supreme in Washington. To change this mindset will prove even more difficult than outmanoeuvring the American Israeli lobby. Americans believe that they won the Cold War against the Soveit Union and remain determined to drive home their advantage. Russia is now signalling that it stands in the way of the US realising its dreams. n (Courtesy: The Asian Age)

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