Monday, July 13, 2009

Reset with Russia? Just Wait

Unlike previous tours to Europe and the Middle East, it was difficult for President Barack Obama to tame the Fierce Russian Bear simply through charming smile and sweet words and phrases. The Media focus on the strategic arms reduction talk, but issues like democracy and human rights are no less important, as eminent foreign policy experts have sent an open letter to the President as I mention in the last post. Also, it was the first time for President Obama to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Stalin Putin. Russian media response was cautious to Obama’s remark of reset (“Obama visit gets lukewarm welcome from Russian media”; Reuters; July 7, 2009).

Let me review some commentaries prior to the summit. The Economist argues that Obama must be tough to help empowerment of Russian citizens as ruling élites stoke anti-Americanism while enjoying opportunity to contact with the West. Also, the writer says that Obama must defend Georgia and Ukraine from Russian expansionism. Meanwhile, both the United States and Russia have common interests in cutting strategic nuclear weapons (“Welcome to Moscow”; Economist; July 2, 2009). On the other hand, hawks insist that new START must not sacrifice expansion of freedom in Russian neighbors (“Obama and Putin's Russia”; Wall Street Journal; July 6, 2009). Regarding missile defense and NATO expansion, Michael McFaul, Special Assistant to the President, said that the United States was going to define its national interests, not bargaining something (“Russia Presents Test for Obama”; Washington Post; July 5, 2009).

Quite interestingly, a journalist commented about anti-Americanism in the Kremlin, “For the last eight years they have been able to hide that fact by pretending it is really George W Bush that they did not like. Now they have to face an American president who is genuinely popular around the world. He terrifies them, and they still haven't figured out what they are going to do" (“Obama seeks thaw in US-Russia ties”; BBC News; 4 July 2009). Andrey Zolotov, Chief Editor of Russia Profile, pointed out that US-Russian economic ties are weak as raw material dependent Russian economy does not attract the United States. Therefore, the Russo-American relationship is predominated by geopolitics and national pride. Also, he said that the Obama effect would not work so dramatically to improve bilateral relations, because current downturn resulted from Clinton era diplomacy (“Russian Expert: Pressing 'Reset' May Not Suffice” NPR; July 5, 2009).

The most important issue of this summit was national security, particularly strategic arms reduction. In addition to the renewal of START, the war in Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation to Iran and North Korea were discussed. In the following video of Russia Today on July 7, Russian political analyst Victor Linnik comments that the timing of this summit is very good to improve bilateral relations.

While the reset has started in the strategic arms negotiation, gaps on missile defense remains unresolved. See another video of Russia Today below.

In the Spotlight of Russia Today on July 8, commentators expressed concerns with US missile defense system to be deployed in Poland and Czech against non-existent Iranian nuclear missile. In my view, what they said is not fair, because Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserts his nuclear ambition, even though Iran has not developed the bomb yet. On the other hand, both Edward Lozansky, President of the American University in Moscow, and Andrey Zolotov, Chief Editor of Russia Profile, were impressed with Barack Obama’s speech at the New Economic School to emphasize mutual prosperity instead of zero-sum power game. See the video below.

BBC also reports this speech with moderate hope of resetting Russo-American relations (“Obama urges shift in Russia ties”; BBC News; 7 July 2009).

On the other hand, Joshua Keating, Web Editor of Foreign Policy, criticizes the cooperation deal with Russia on Afghanistan because the United States can choose other reliable partners like Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan (“Did Obama accomplish anything in Moscow?”; FP Passport; July 7, 2009).

The first meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Putin is a landmark of US-Russian diplomacy. It was something like a ceremonial salute for Obama to the most influential politician of Russia, and Putin recalled warm personal ties with George W. Bush despite clash of national interests between the United States and Russia (“Putin praises Bush hospitality during Obama visit”; Reuters; July 7, 2009).

Human rights and democracy issues were no less important than national security, because open letters were released to the public as I mentioned in the last post. Liberals criticize such actions, because they believe steadfast demand on human rights will damage the US-Russian partnership on the War on Terror (“The Latest Neocon Attack on Obama”; Huffington Post; July 2, 2009). President Obama was cautious to avoid criticizing Russia directly, as he requested Russian admission to pass US troops in its territory to attack terrorists in Afghanistan (“Obama, in Russia, praises democracy, blasts graft”; Reuters; July 7, 2009). Though modestly, Barack Obama invited opposition opinion leaders like Novaya Gazeta Newspaper and civil society representatives to advocate American involvement (“President Obama Reaches Out to Russian Opposition”; VOA News; 8 July 2009). At the meeting with Obama, Boris Nemtsov, head of pro-Western Solidarity party said, "Now Putin and Medvedev will realize that there is more than just them in the political arena. We demand free political competition." Among Russian civil societies, Yuri Dzhibladze, President of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, and Andrei Kortunov, head of the New Eurasia Foundation, expressed their high expectation for Obama (“Obama talks spur rights call by Russian activists”; Reuters; July 8, 2009).

Although strategic arms reduction attracted media and public attention, democracy in Russia is as important as security issues. Unlike previous tours to Europe and the Middle East, President Barack Obama was not apologetic to American foreign policy in the past. Still, Obama appears timidly cautious to address American ideals. I do not know whether President Obama read articles by Nile Gardiner, former advisor to Lady Thatcher. People in quest of freedom anticipate strong leadership of America, from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Iran, and around the world. I agree with Gardiner, and President Obama should be more assertive to help America’s allies and friends in the above counties.

For further reference, see this link.