Monday, 6 July 2009

Obama need not be firm with Russia, just reasonable and fair.

Barack Obama is in Russia today. Thus a proliferation of articles and editorials urging the US President not to trust perfidious, semi-Asiatic barbarians adorn the newspapers. Predictably.

In contrast, few media outlets chose to cover an assassination attempt last month on reforming Ingushetia president, Yunusbek Yevkurov, which constitutes part of a reinvigorated Islamist campaign in the Russian Caucasus. Encouraged by Dmitri Medvedev, Yevkurov has implemented a regime built on principles of glasnost in Russia’s most dangerous region. The terrorist attack was targeted very deliberately at a force for normalisation and transparency, which Wahhabi militants wish to undermine. Fewer reporters still have highlighted the ongoing struggle for democracy in Georgia and the government’s repressive tactics against the country’s opposition. But with Obama in Moscow to meet his Kremlin counterpart, all the clich├ęs about a totalitarian Russian regime, intent on snuffing out democracy along its borders, have been sought out by editors, who show little inclination to qualify stereotype, either by investigating how Russians interpret geo-political events, or examining the nuance of recent developments within the world’s largest country. It is sufficient to know that Medvedev is a powerless puppet figurehead whose strings are pulled by Machiavellian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and that Russians, as a race of people, only understand stern treatment. One hopes that Obama’s policy advisers take a more subtle approach.

The anti-Russian argument going into this summit is based on two faulty premises. First, that Moscow has no legitimate strategic interest in states around it borders which should check the western impulse to advance its chosen institutions to Russia’s borders. Second, that those states are bulwarks of democracy, whereas Russia is an aggressive totalitarian regime. The truth is that Russians do not see Nato as a progressive guarantor of democracy and their scepticism about the organisation is justified. It is an unreformed Cold War institution which was animated by the precise purpose of countering Soviet power. The very fact that an erratic, posturing Georgian regime, possessed of questionable democratic credentials, is a leading candidate to join, confirms to the Kremlin that Nato is still engaged in strategic machinations to curtail and surround Russia. In Ukraine a corrupt and rabidly anti-Russian president aspires to take his country into the military alliance against the wishes of a majority of his fellow citizens. Russia is an imperfect democracy, but the hostile states which surround it are equally imperfect. The narrative of plucky democrats and bullying dictatorship is not just simplistic, it is ludicrous. Even the EU, which as an entity is less belligerently anti-Russian than Nato, has allowed member states to continue to abuse minorities, when those minorities happen to be ethnically Russian.

Far from constituting the pathological, anti- American conspiracy theorists popularly depicted, 45% of Russians actually approve of the new US President, and Russia is just as eager a consumer of American popular culture as the rest of Europe. A perception of enmity rather than partnership is exclusive neither to Russia nor the West, but it is a mentality which must be consigned to the past. In the opening months of his presidency Obama exhibited every sign that he would pursue a more constructive relationship with Moscow and he mustn’t allow his resolve to be softened by incessant Russophobe voices. Importantly he should recognise that Russia has a genuine grievance when it alleges that Nato aspires to encircle its territories. If the US expects Medvedev to cooperate on Iran, for instance, it is reasonable to offer a more objective approach to Georgia and its treaty membership in return. In the light of shared concerns about Afghanistan, a planned weapons shield in eastern Europe should be scrapped as a symbol of goodwill.

Most of all, Obama should demonstrate a less condescending attitude than his predecessors to dynamics inside Russia. That the US head of state can communicate with Russian citizens via the leading liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, in itself gives the lie to the notion of an incorrigibly repressive regime. He plans to meet opposition leaders in Moscow, but he should be aware that Garry Kasparov has negligible support, despite his popularity with western newspapers. Indeed the chess master counts amongst his political bedfellows ‘National Bolshevik’ leader Eduard Limonov, whose eccentric dogma melds Stalinist nostalgia and overt Nazi imagery. Kasparov might be demonstrating an attitude to the Kremlin which mirrors that of many western leaders, i.e. my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but Obama should aim to show that his democratic principles are consistent.

Already, by terming Vladimir Putin a voice from ‘the past’, the American president has shown insensitivity to the internal political situation in Russia. Diplomacy is not achieved by interfering in a country’s affairs in order to exploit political rivalries. Obama should resist the many voices urging him to be firm with Russia and instead strive simply to be fair and reasonable.


Hernandez said...

One word to describe Putin: Cunning.

Obama is a good lad. Kasparov should stick to board games.

Gaw said...

I can't see Russia cooperating with the West on Iran in the foreseeable future regardless of what the latter does re Georgia. Keeping Iran estranged from the West is of the highest importance to Russia as it also helps keep Iran's huge natural gas reserves from Western markets.

Chekov said...

I'm not sure whether Russia relishes the thought of another nuclear power in the Caspian region though Gaw. And if the US missile shield is really aimed at Iran the best way to take it out of the equation is to be seen to cooperate. Although I don't think it is within Russia's gift to prevent Iran going nuclear. It could slow its efforts down a bit though.

Gaw said...

Judge Russia by its actions: it's selling Iran missiles, which at the very least will provide a defence for Iran's nuclear facilities and may provide a boost to its own missile development.

I would speculate that the calculation for Russia would be that (a) Iran will probably go nuclear anyway so Russia just as well make some (serious) money out of it; (b) it's not in Russia's interest to make life easier for the US in the Middle East as ongoing conflict there will distract them from the FSU; (c) tensions in the Middle East will raise the oil price and will benefit Russian arms sales; (d) keeping the pot boiling in Iran provides more chances to drive a wedge between Europe and the US; and (e) my previous point that keeping Iran estranged from the US will be good for Russian gas.

In terms of power politics I struggle to come up with any compelling reasons for Russia to cooperate with the US vis-a-vis Iran. Oil and gas fuels the Russian machine and I think it's the primary interest expressed in Russian foreign policy.

I don't think the bargaining chips the US could offer weigh as much as the factors above particularly as the US is too over-stretched to do much about the Russian near-abroad.

The implications for the prospects of a partnership developing between Russia and the US are obvious.