Weekly column by Konstantin von Eggert
Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama are meeting in Deauville, France. Russia today is certainly not among the top three policy priorities in Washington, but an interest in its political evolution still exists. After all, even though Moscow's ability to influence world politics is clearly lower than that of the Soviet Union, it still can create problems for America, or, conversely, to facilitate their decision. Therefore the White House cannot ignore Moscow’s opinion.
The "reset" of Russian-American relations, which Obama served as one of his foreign policy’s signature dishes, did not and, in a way, could not fail completely. A few examples: the signing of the START-3 treaty - not very important from a practical point of view but giving Russia an opportunity to return to the prestigious topic of disarmament. Obama's approach to post-Soviet space by seemingly accepting Russia’s privileged interests there was also helpful. It was made even more valuable by Washington’s dismissal of criticism by Central Europe and the Baltic states. And do not forget the support the U.S. administration declares for Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organization.
Moscow in its turn agreed to a tightening of UN sanctions against Iran and awarded contracts to two U.S. multinationals - Boeing and ExxonMobil. It also seemed to display more flexibility in discussing issues of missile defense in Europe and showed a certain tendency to strengthen cooperation with NATO. The icing on the cake was the Kremlin's decision to abstain during a vote on UN resolution 1973 that opened the way for U.S.-backed military action against Libya.
However, in recent weeks this positive atmosphere somewhat dissipated. President Medevedev and other Russian officials have become much more outspoken over the missile defense issue and subjected the Libyan operation to increasingly harsh criticism. They are also trying to reconcile Hamas and Fatah to the evident displeasure of Israel and an implicit one of the U.S. At his press conference in Skolkovo outside Moscow, President Medvedev even allowed himself to indulge in an ironic asides regarding Obama, playfully raising doubts about the elimination of Osama bin Laden. In general, a period of relative peace and harmony in relations between Russia and the United States, and in general, Russia and the West, seems to be closing, and the relationship might soon be plying rougher waters.
The U.S. leadership does not have the time or desire to give Russia as much time and attention as it did to the USSR. In Washington, Russia is regarded as a mid-level regional power with great socio-economic problems, which, moreover, does not want to recognize new realities. Russia is important, nobody can deny this, but just compare it with Afghan or U.S.-China relations and you’ll see the difference.
Russia, in turn, does not want to agree with the agenda put forward by the United States, but at the same time it cannot offer a coherent alternative to it. In addition, anti-Americanism is one of the most stable commodities on the Russian domestic political market and it will once again be in demand during the election period. This is what prompted Medvedev's taunts about the death of bin Laden.
The agenda of bilateral relations between Russia and the United States is much shorter than even, say, a Russian-German one, not to mention Russia and the EU. Despite some positive developments and massive efforts of the US-Russia Business Council in Washington, the situation has not changed much: American business is looking at the vast expanses of the Russian Federation with a much greater skepticism than its European competitors.
A visa-free regime between the two countries is not being seriously discussed. Russian-EU and Russian-U.S. cultural and student exchanges are vastly different in scope. Even the ludicrous issue of gay pride parades in Moscow finds more response in European institutions than in the United States.
There is no doubt that Obama will meet in Deauville with a much more uncompromising and skeptical Medvedev. The Russian president is irritated by the fact that the situation in Libya is not changing, that the Jackson-Vanick Amendment has still not been repealed, and that on missile defense neither the U.S. nor NATO is willing to give Russia any control over decision-making, or a specific area of responsibility including a part of the post-Soviet space.
Obama, too, is probably unhappy that Russian experts have launched the Bushehr nuclear power reactor, that Moscow sided with the Syrian regime and is putting renewed pressure on Georgia. Each of these topics does not and will not provoke a crisis in relations, but together they create a political background with a distinct whiff of unpleasantness.
The “reset" was based on the simple premise of "Let's try to resolve relatively minor issues that will create trust for resolving major ones." The problem is that trust, although it has somewhat increased, is still visibly insufficient.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
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