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The Russian 'Reset' Charade

The Russian 'Reset' Charade

By Cathy Young - June 25, 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's arrival in Washington, DC for a meeting with President Obama is the latest step in the much-vaunted "reset" in frayed United States-Russian relations. But in fact, the Medvedev visit highlights just what a charade the "reset" is: an empty political spectacle that is at best useless and at worst harmful, distracting the U.S. leadership from the search for effective solutions to international issues and helping prop up a corrupt, authoritarian, and ultimately unfriendly regime in the Kremlin.

In a way, the sham nature of the post-"reset" U.S.-Russian relationship is embodied in the fact that Obama's partner in this summit is not quite his counterpart. The Medvedev presidency, now in its third year, is one in which the word "President" calls for scare quotes -- just like the word "elected." Handpicked as heir by Vladimir Putin, who was constitutionally barred from a third term, Medvedev is widely seen as a lackey to his former boss and current Prime Minister. (He recently disclosed that he uses the plural form of the Russian "you" to address Putin while Putin uses the singular "you" to him, suggesting that Putin is the authority figure.) Medvedev has used more liberal rhetoric than Putin and called for major reforms to modernize not only Russia's economy but its political and legal system. Yet, judging by the results, this is at best empty talk by a front man powerless to effect real change, and at worst a ploy to give the Putin regime a more presentable façade.

What's more, on foreign policy, even Medvedev's proclaimed stance has differed little from his mentor's aggressive nationalism. He was the one who welcomed then-President-elect Obama, the day after the election, with a threat to deploy missiles on the Russian-Polish border if the U.S. pursued plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe. While the strident anti-Americanism that emanated from official Russian circles in recent years has been toned down, the Putin-Medvedev regime still derives much of its domestic political capital from the image of Russia as a great power capable of challenging and curbing America's pretensions to global dominance.

One way in which the Obama Administration has sought to turn this rivalry to friendship is by negotiating and signing the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to replace the previous expired one. Some on the right have blasted the agreement for "giving too much" to Russia and possibly endangering our security, particularly of its restrictions on the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with conventional warheads but adaptable to nuclear ones. In fact, a recently released Brookings Institution analysis points out that the number of such missiles actually produced by the U.S. is virtually certain to remain far below the START ceiling, and persuasively refutes most other arguments about START's perils. But while the treaty may not be a defeat for the U.S., it is also no victory. It is simply part of the ritual dance of arms control left over from Cold War days -- a dance that, even then, mattered less for the actual arms cuts than for the symbolism.

Indeed, in a symbolic sense, the new START does hand Russia a victory. As the astute Russian independent commentator Alexander Golts pointed out last November on the EJ.ru website, nuclear arms are one area in which the Russian political establishment feels Russia can speak to America as an equal.

Another gift to the Kremlin has been the weakening of U.S. pressure on human rights. The first alarm bell came a year ago, when a bilateral presidential commission was created to deal with various issues in Russian-American relations: the man picked as the Russian co-leader of its working group on the civil society was presidential chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the Putin regime's ideological enforcer. (Among other things, Surkov is the godfather of Nashi, the thuggish "youth movement" that routinely harasses opposition activists.) The group's co-leader on the U.S. side, Obama's Russia adviser and former Hoover Institution scholar Michael McFaul, seems to have backed off his once-strong criticism of Russian neo-authoritarianism. Time magazine reports that when the working group met in Russia in late May-early June, McFaul's half-hearted attempts to raise such issues as election fraud were promptly rebuffed and abandoned. The official Russian delegation was pleased; the Russian human rights activists who attended were disappointed.

What does the Obama Administration get out of this beautiful friendship? Mainly, the elusive phantasm of Russian support for measures to curb Iran's nuclear program. Earlier this month, Russia finally agreed, after months of negotiations, to back mild United Nations sanctions against Iran. A few days later, Medvedev slammed the U.S. and the European Union for adopting additional, tougher trade sanctions of their own. This approach, which U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called "schizophrenic," is due not only to Russia's commercial ties with Tehran but also with the desire to use Iran as a thorn in America's side.

An old Soviet joke observed that under communism, the workers pretend to work and the state pretends to pay them. Perhaps there is a similar reciprocity in U.S.-Russian relations today. Washington pretends to treat Moscow as an ally with shared liberal values. Moscow pretends to act like one.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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