Pressing the Rewind Button on US-Russian Relations

Balancing Expectations and Rhetoric in a Post-Soviet World

“Let’s re-write the end

Start over again

And it’s gon’ go better now

Cause when I’m looking in your eyes

Feels like the first time

Give me one good reason why

We can’t just press rewind”

Mariah Carey

From the song “For the Record” (2008)

Don’t dismiss Mariah Carey’s schmaltzy little song too fast. She may have a point, even when it comes to such high-stake affairs as U.S. foreign policy.

Even though President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from their very first in-person meeting at the G20 economic forum in London last month with an agreement on “a fresh start,” it will certainly take more than catchy promises to ensure US-Russian cooperation on crucial issues and stabilize relations, which have had a rather rough ride under the Bush-Putin administrations.

Just like the mock “reset button” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva last month on the heels of Vice President Joe Biden’s earlier declaration that the Obama administration was intent “to press the reset button” in US.-Russian relations, and like President George W. Bush’s famous 2001 remark that he “saw Putin’s soul” by looking into his eyes, this diplomatic rhetoric has certainly an appealing resonance to it but offers little in real terms when it comes to making progress in areas of disagreement — and there are many, as the G20 forum made clear.

From the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially with regards to Iran and North Korea, to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system close to Russia’s borders and the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into an expanding NATO — Washington and Moscow will need to think beyond Cold War-era stereotypes and sweet strategic talk to work together on win-win agreements on common problems.

Healthy, sustainable bilateral relations will also depend on cooperation regarding international terrorism and energy security.

On this side of the pond, all eyes will be on Obama, often seen as overly conciliatory on foreign policy, to see how he “handles Russia.” Most of all, Americans, Russians, as the rest of the world, will want to see evidence that both countries are committed to produce concrete results on the most thorny issues — most importantly their intention to draw down and eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

On this last point the G20 was a step in the right direction, as it led to “very productive” initial talks in Rome on April 24, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller. The talks, which centered around a new treaty to curb nuclear arms, were called after Obama and Medvedev agreed in London to craft a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires on December 5. The first full-fledged negotiations started on May 7 when Lavrov traveled to Washington to meet Obama and Clinton. The presidents have ordered reports on the talks by July, to coincide with Obama’s first visit to Russia. Assuming commitments and deadlines are met, this is an encouraging schedule.

There remain major disagreements though. In addition to reaching an agreement on North Korea — which the nonproliferation treaty could help prevent from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power — and on cooperation in the Afghanistan war, the two sides need to come to an accord when it comes to Iran, a point of convergence between the United States’ focus on the use of threats and sanctions and Russia’s insistence on a more gentle, diplomatic approach.

Another pressing problem, one that has been a persistent thorn in relations, is the geopolitical power struggle occurring in the former Soviet territories — the center of Russia’s strategic interests. The stickiest points surround the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Central Europe, to which Obama re-confirmed the United States’ commitment in Prague on April 6, and the expansion of NATO through membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia strongly objects to.

Russia’s ingrained centuries-old xenophobic fear of “a foreign enemy” near or on its territory is well known, but Washington’s deployment of new bases around its borders since the end of the Cold War — from Romania to Uzbekistan — may understandably fan such fears.

Finding ways to overcome differences and reach an agreement will require both sides to be a master hand at negotiations. It is clear that a breakthrough is still far away, but last month’s resumption of formal contacts between NATO and Russia, severed for eight months over the war with Georgia, are a step in the right direction to improve relations between the former Cold War foes. The tentatively scheduled May 19 meeting between NATO foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart, Lavrov, which Clinton is expected to attend, will hopefully cement the renewed ties.

However, for all the hard work and signs of good will from both countries, it seems that the discordance between them runs deeper and is still very much tainted by Cold War-era attitudes.

That Russia has been flaunting international conventions on human rights with regards to its citizens and that its dubious brand of home-concocted “sovereign democracy” leave much to be desired are not breaking news, though they should provoke a much stricter response from the West. But it takes two for a conflict, and in turn it does not hurt to examine the U.S rhetoric on Russia, especially with regards to its media coverage.

To start with, Russia seemed to take the backstage in major American dailies’ coverage of the G20 meeting in London. The Wall Street Journal ran a little blurb on Russia in the inside pages of its “G-20 Summit” section, in a box entitled “G-20 Dispatches,” rather than a full story amid its main coverage, as Obama’s meetings with the leaders of other countries received. Similarly, the Boston Globe ran one Op-Ed piece on April 3, but no news coverage of the U.S. and Russian presidents’ first meeting. Likewise in the New York Times’ April 3 coverage of the economic summit, a closer look at Russia only appeared in a brief letter to the editor (“Zero Nuclear Weapons”).

This seems to jar with Russia’s self-perception and proclamation at home and abroad of having regained its super-power status on the world stage, a sentiment that was reinforced by Russian officials’ conclusions on the G20 summit. Admittedly, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s demand, during his April 24 visit to Washington D.C., that the United States treats Russia as a peer in the sphere of global affairs, may sound a little childish and immature given Russia’s severe delays in legislative reform and the state of its economy.

Still, it is hard not to see at least signs of what Lavrov denounced as the West’s “Information War on Russia.” His comments followed the release of a survey on April 22 showing Russians’ majority support for their country’s foreign policy and satisfaction with its international influence.

Kudrin in Washington made a similar complaint, saying that some Western media had misquoted him as saying that the Russian economy would not recover from the crisis for 50 years, even though his comments referred only to external conditions such as oil prices and how they may change in the next 10 to 50 years.

The West has had plenty of very justifiable reasons to distrust the Kremlin’s words, especially when they come in the form of Putin’s verbal attacks or even expletives — as is sometimes the case with his speeches to the West — or when he referred to the United States as “a wolf with a limited point of view.”

But it is hard not to feel a hint of gloating satisfaction coming from some Western quarters at the possibility of a Russia collapsing under its own economic mistakes and “misguided” worldview. Indeed, for the past couple of years, just as Russia has been clamoring its comeback, the U.S. and Western media have been replete with commentaries predicting doomsday scenarios due to the slump in oil prices.

There is no doubt that Russia’s unhealthy reliance on its energy resources is responsible for its dysfunctional economy. The problem is that Western observers have been predicting Russia’s “imminent collapse” for quite a while now — to no avail. Perhaps surprisingly for many non-Russian economists, Russia has weathered relatively well economic crises — both the present and earlier ones. Russian financial experts attribute this to Russia’s “special conditions.”

Russia is now feeling the full impact of the crisis, with the unemployment rate hitting 10 percent last month and expected to continue to rise in the second half of the year, according to the Russian Economic Ministry. Hopefully, Russia will learn that legislation and diversification are key to a healthy economy. But does it deserve the gloating glance it is receiving from the U.S. media?

The Wall Street Journal’s February 5 “Russia Shifts Bailout From Industry to Banks” seems to celebrate Russia’s “Plunging Cash Reserves and New Credit Downgrade,” and the glee is palpable in its sub-title which states that these conditions “Pushed the Kremlin to Acknowledge ‘Very Difficult’ Circumstances.” Later, the article quotes a Goldman Sachs economist as saying that, “The fact they were downgraded today is a reminder that they don’t have infinite money and that’s what they’re just beginning to get their heads around,” which seems to satisfyingly confirm Western predictions by playing up to the anti-Russian mantra that has been echoing from some corridors in Washington. The article comes with a schema showing Russia’s “shrinking surplus” and “tumbling crude-oil prices.”

An earlier WSJ piece, on December 5, seemed to seek to convey the idea that ordinary Russians themselves are worried sick about the situation in their country, with the headline “Putin Tries to Soothe Anxious Russians,” while my own eight years as a Moscow correspondent have repeatedly made clear to me that apathy and indifference are the most usual responses from Russian citizens to their country’s various crises. If not, the vast majority of people are usually supportive of the Kremlin’s policies.

An Op-Ed piece in the April 3 issue of the Boston Globe refers to Russia as our “difficult partner,” calling for “a way to deal more successfully with a resurgent and dyspeptic Russia.” We know that Russia’s efforts to regain some of its political and economic power over the past years have been faltering and are to a great extent due to its own ineffective laws and customs — but is the allusion to indigestion really necessary? While President Obama is working hard to mend the United States’ tense diplomatic relations with the rest of the world following many years of Bush’s disastrous policies, how exactly is this kind of language and tone helping US-Russian relations — starting with Americans’ view of Russia?

At the G20, Obama stressed that, although relations between the two nations are strained, they also share many interests and can work together, he said in an obvious effort to put Russia’s “bear” image behind him.

On the Russian side, Medvedev has sent some encouraging messages towards the West, giving an interview to the independent opposition daily Novaya Gazeta last month and embracing online new media with the launch in late April of his blog on the Russian LiveJournal website, which (assuming that outspoken comments do not get deleted) may well herald a new era of openness between the Kremlin and the citizens. Undoubtedly, Medvedev has been engaging the Russian and Western audiences in unprecedented ways for a Russian president.

This is all very pleasant and encouraging. Still, Obama should be aware of who he is dealing with at all times. It may not be the Soviet bear anymore, but it is no secret that as Prime Minister, Putin is the one pulling the strings. After appointing Medvedev in a farcical election, he is still seen by 27 percent of the population as the one behind major decisions in the Kremlin, according to an April survey, and it is my firm belief that he is engineering a comeback. According to the same poll, 57 percent of Russians expect him to be the next president. It is crucial that Obama be aware of this and who for now might be behind Medvedev’s smiles and actions.

Regardless, Obama’s decision to engage rather than distrust is wise, smart, and honorable. In response to a question at the G20 in London on whether the United States and Russia can make progress together on reducing nuclear stockpiles and the threat of terrorism, he responded with his smart and now famous reply, “I think we can.”

His very first visit to Russia in July — to a summit Medvedev invited him to while in London — will be a test to see if all the hard work on both sides was done in earnest and whether the words exchanged were meant for more than strategic rhetoric and pressing “the reset button.” There will be much to look forward to from this first visit.

Till then, one still wishes that US-Russian relations could be as easy and smooth as in Twitterland, where plenty of Barack Obamas and Dmitry Medvedevs have been happily and melodiously twittering and chirping away with each other without a single negative-sounding note…