Why Russia’s leaders don’t respect the US anymore

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Apart from a brief period in the early 1990s, Russia’s rulers never really liked the United States. But they always respected America. Not anymore.

I cannot claim to understand the intricate domestic debate in the United States about “Obama-care.” One has to be American to figure out what the whole fuss is about on both sides. But that’s for Americans to judge.

However, in the field of foreign affairs one can evaluate Barack Obama’s policies without carrying a US passport. And there, he definitely looks like Jimmy Carter, probably the weakest post-war US president. Apart from two steps – focusing on the alarming rise of China and eliminating Osama bin Laden – Obama’s first four years were marked by a hasty retreat from Iraq, the collapse of the allied effort in Afghanistan (to be followed by an even hastier upcoming withdrawal in 2014), a confused reaction to the so-called Arab Spring, near total oblivion for the Trans-Atlantic relationship and caving in to the post-Soviet autocracies.

As a Russian I always thought that an engaged and strong American foreign policy is in Russia’s national interests, as the United States will be doing quite a few jobs the Russians themselves are unable or unwilling to do. Standing up to China, pacifying Afghanistan (now, alas, clearly a thing of the past) and fighting Islamist terror are prime examples here. The United States’ commitment to civil liberties always helped to keep autocrats all over the world on their toes.

Apart from a brief period in the early 1990s, Russia’s rulers never really liked the United States. But they always respected America. Not anymore. Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, is coming to Moscow to deliver a message to Vladimir Putin. In the wake of the expulsion of USAID from Russia, a wave of repressive legislative acts aimed at Russian civic society and, finally, the so-called “Anti-Magnitsky Law,” punishing Russian orphaned and sick children for the misdeeds of a few corrupt Russian civil servants, one would expect a frank exchange of views on the state of bilateral relations. But, if one believes the diplomatic rumour mill in Moscow, the message from the White House will seemingly be about a so-called “Reset-2” – an attempt to re-launch the relationship, after “Reset-1” largely failed to deliver. It seems that the main goal of “Reset-2” will be START-4 – yet another nuclear arms reduction treaty. Obama has a touching 1960s and 1970s attachment to nuclear disarmament, which increasingly looks to me like an honest attempt to earn his undeserved 2009 Nobel Peace Prize postfactum.

Vladimir Putin will grant Obama’s wish (it is in Russia’s interests too to continue trimming its ageing nuclear arsenal). But not before extracting a price from the White House. Non-interference in Russia’s domestic affairs and accepting Russia’s dominant role in the post-Soviet space will probably be among his demands. I am absolutely certain they will be granted.

Moreover, Putin’s view of Russia and himself seems to be much clearer and firmer than that of Obama regarding the United States. He wants to stay in power for as long as he considers right. He doesn’t want anyone to interfere with the decisions he takes. And he wants Russia – his Russia – to be respected in the old-fashioned Cold War way. Whether one agrees with Putin’s vision is a matter of taste and political conviction. But one cannot deny that when he sits down to talk with Western politicians, including the president of the United States, he knows very well what he wants to achieve. One may say this is because Putin has been running Russia for more than 13 years, and never faced a serious political or electoral challenge, while his counterparts have to struggle for re-election, fend off opposition challenges and juggle party politics and national interests. This is true. But hardly anyone in the West dares to contradict Putin – and he takes this as yet more proof that his international stature is assured. He likes to play geopolitics and to converse with the international affairs’ realist-in-chief Henry Kissinger. And he doesn’t like to talk about values. As long as foreign policy interaction remains a series of give-and-takes and does not involve any talk of the principles underpinning it, the Russian president will retain comfortable superiority not only over Tom Donilon, but over Tom Donilon’s boss, too.

First published in RIA Novosti.

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