Remember when George W. Bush thought he could get things done by making nice with Vladimir Putin? Barack Obama is repeating the same error with Dmitry Medvedev.
Still in the midst of a diplomatic fracas with Israel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also found herself in a mini-crisis with Russia during last week’s Moscow trip. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly snubbed Clinton during a meeting Friday, hectoring her in front of reporters after announcing Thursday that Russia would bring the nuclear reactor it is constructing in Iran online later this year. This comes just as Washington is hoping to tighten the screws on Tehran over its illicit nuclear program.
Putin’s treatment of Clinton raises doubts about the Barack Obama administration’s strategy toward Russia, which has focused on building up the supposedly moderate President Dmitri Medvedev, reportedly one of the few foreign leaders Obama has bonded with, as a counterweight to Putin.
Obama’s focus on a personal relationship with a Russian leader is nothing new; in fact it’s drearily consistent with how past U.S. presidents have handled their relations with Russia. After his first meeting with then-President Putin in June 2001, George W. Bush famously said: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." But despite some early agreements between the two leaders that enabled the United States to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and cooperate in Central Asia in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by the end of Bush’s second term relations with Russia had appreciably worsened and Russian democracy was in full retreat.
Bush’s focus on his personal relationship with the thuggish Putin was rightly scorned. But Bush was not the first American president to place a bet on personal ties between himself and a leader in Moscow. As the Soviet Union was coming to an end, George H. W. Bush clearly preferred doing business with its no-nonsense leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the disheveled, vodka-loving Boris Yeltsin. But Gorbachev’s agenda was about saving the Soviet Union, while Yeltsin, for all his flaws, wanted to bury that corpse and move Russia toward the West and democratic rule. And now, we’re hearing that Obama believes he has a different and promising relationship with Medvedev — one independent of Putin.
Medvedev, to be sure, talks a different game than Putin. On the domestic front, he has spoken and written extensively about the need to liberalize Russia’s politics and economy, tackle corruption, and unwind the worst features of the autocratic and oligarchic system now in place. And it is on this basis that Obama’s efforts to build a solid personal relationship with Medvedev can be justified. Or can they?
For all his talk of reform — and so far it is just that, talk — Medvedev still claims that Russia is a working democracy that protects the liberties of individual Russians despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And on the national security front, it is difficult to see much light between Medvedev and Putin if Medvedev is judged by his actions, not just his rhetoric. Since becoming Putin’s hand-picked successor as president in May 2008, Medvedev has done little to blunt his predecessor’s Russian revanchist policies. On Medvedev’s watch, Georgia has been invaded and Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively annexed, and Russia has continued to threaten its neighbors and put forward a "new security architecture" whose obvious goal is to undermine NATO’s role in Europe.
Medvedev’s defenders — both in Washington and Brussels — argue that such is the price he must pay for sharing power with Putin. However, even if Medvedev’s more moderate and liberalizing words are to be taken as a reflection of his own views, Russia’s recent actions suggest that he may not even have much control over the Kremlin’s notorious bureaucracy, particularly the security services, since there has been no noticeable effort to reform the Russian regime at home or tame its bullying tactics abroad.
In fact, his seemingly well-meaning comments about arms control or Iran have often been overshadowed days later by more bellicose moves from Putin, as happened last week. The obvious point is that Putin is still calling the shots and will likely continue doing so as he plots a return to the Russian presidency in 2012. This shouldn’t come as any great surprise; it’s a stretch to think that Medvedev could, if he wanted to, break with the system that promoted him, gave him power, and keeps him there. As Michael Corleone, the Godfather’s youngest son, learned, going legit is no easy task for members of the mafia.
In short, there is little reason to believe that basing a "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations on increased personal ties between presidents Medvedev and Obama will buy Obama any particular advantage. If anything, doing so reinforces Moscow’s incentive to continue the "good cop, bad cop" routine. In January, thousands of Russians took to the streets in Kaliningrad to campaign for democratic reforms and thousands protested deteriorating economic conditions in cities across the country on Saturday. The success or failure of these democratic forces will likely be more important for the United States in the long run than Obama’s personal relationship with a leader that many Russians view as little more than a puppet.
It’s always possible of course that Medvedev could be his generation’s Gorbachev. But given all we’ve seen so far, that possibility seems remote. More likely, come 2012 Obama will find himself in a position similar to that of his predecessor — defending an ineffective U.S.-Russia policy that rests on the weakest of reeds: close personal ties with a Russian leader.