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Medeved … Medved … whatever

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images During Tuesday evening’s debate, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seemed especially comfortable discussing Russia’s heir apparent, Dmitry Medvedev. You could tell from the impish delight with which moderator Tim Russert sprang his surprise question — “What can you tell me about the man who’s going to be Mr. Putin’s successor?” — ...

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J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

During Tuesday evening’s debate, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seemed especially comfortable discussing Russia’s heir apparent, Dmitry Medvedev. You could tell from the impish delight with which moderator Tim Russert sprang his surprise question — “What can you tell me about the man who’s going to be Mr. Putin’s successor?” — that a revealing exchange would follow.

First, Sen. Clinton correctly noted that “he’s a hand-picked successor… who is obviously being installed by Putin.” Then, she weighed in on the side of Russia analysts who view Medvedev as little more than Vladimir Putin’s puppet, characterizing the former as having “very little independence” (some experts say the jury’s still out on this). She concluded, “I have no doubt, as president, even though technically the meetings may be with the man who is labeled as president, the decisions will be made by Putin.” (Again, an open question.)

Mischievously, Russert then asked, “Who will it be? Do you know his name?” Clinton responded with a couple sorry attempts to pronounce “Medvedev,” and finally gave up and said “whatever.” [UPDATE: Check out Russia Today‘s video clip of Clinton’s slip-up here.]

Russert then turned to Clinton’s rival, asking, “Senator Obama, do you know anything about him?” Obama’s answer, essentially, was “not really”:

Well, I think Senator Clinton speaks accurately about him. He is somebody who was hand-picked by Putin. Putin has been very clear that he will continue to have the strongest hand in Russia in terms of running the government.”

Obama went on to criticize President Bush’s Russia policy, complaining, “[W]e did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us. That is something that we have to change.”

If Obama thinks that beating up on the Russians over human rights is going to have a positive impact on the Russian political landscape or elicit more cooperation at this point, he’s sorely mistaken. The next U.S. president is going to have to come to grips with a Russia that is saying, “Screw you, West. You messed up our country in the 90s, and we’re going to do things our way now.” It’s a Russia that is deeply paranoid about NATO expansion and U.S. involvement in its traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, worried about missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe, and increasingly aggrieved about not getting its perceived due in the world. And it’s a Russia that is flush with petrorubles and no longer needs handouts from anyone.

The United States needs to convince this Russia to cooperate on a number of key fronts — Iran’s nuclear program, loose nukes, and counterterrorism, to name a few. I’m sorry to say it, but human rights just isn’t the top U.S. priority right now. It may not make for good campaign rhetoric, but the smart play is to welcome Medvedev and encourage him to be the liberal reformer he has hinted he might become. Maybe he does turn about to be Putin’s mini-me, but there’s no need to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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