Russian commentary views parallel reset, deadlock trends in dialogue with USA

Text of report by Russian political commentary website Politkom.ru on 31 May

[Article by Tatyana Stanovaya, director of the Analytical Department, Centre for Political Technologies: "End of ‘exchanges’"]

The nervousness of the Russian authorities in regard to the US has once again begun to grow: The Russian authorities reacted harshly to the recent statement by US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, made at the Higher School of Economics. There, McFaul spoke out on a number of questions not so much as a diplomat, but as a political expert. The ambassador’s directness evoked a sharply negative reaction in the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, which, from the very beginning of McFaul’s work in Moscow, has been closely monitoring his every step and demonstrating indignation at his "political activity." Judging by all, someone in power in Russia would very much like to make McFaul into a symbol of "menacing American imperialism."

In recent times, two parallel tendencies could be observed. The first is associated with attempts, despite everything, to emphasize the political will for preserving dialogue between the countries and the adherence to continuation of the "reset," and building more effective relations. The recent statement by the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, made in the spirit of friendship and mutual understanding, was seen as the "white spot" on the dulled relations. Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Ryabkov told how Dmitriy Medvedev had given Barack Obama a message from the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. "It sets a constructive tone in mutual relations. Undoubtedly, the Russian side confirms its adherence to the previous course, without any vacillation. The continuity of our relations is the pivotal point of policy in the American direction," he said, adding that "constructive principles" will not be influenced by any "personality" factors.

This message, despite its positive tone, could be interpreted in two ways: Either the Kremlin really would like to smooth out the situation surrounding Putin’s refusal to come to the G8 Summit, or this is a diplomatic ploy to show that Russia is specifically speaking out in favour of the "reset," writes long letters to Obama, makes assurances about continuity, and in general is in favour of everything good as opposed to everything bad. In other words, if problems are emanating from someone, it is not from us. This was followed by the statement of Presidential Aide Yuriy Ushakov, who gave a more concrete explanation of the situation surrounding the letters of both presidents to each other, and said that Obama had also sent Putin a long message back on 2 May, and that Putin’s response was no less lengthy, etc. One got the impression that Ushakov had to correct the mistakes of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which in its first statement had for some reason kept quiet about Obama’s initial letter and its details, as if it was only Russia that wanted peace.

In light of this, one got the impression that, on one hand, the Kremlin has the desire to return to a constructive tone, but that, on the other, this intention is somehow always being undermined. And all this is superimposed over the second tendency, which is specifically associated with deterioration of the atmosphere, growth of tension, and the feeling of having reached an impasse in resolving a number of acute questions, and primarily the question of missile defence. Here too was the "Magnitskiy list," prepared by the State Department, which includes certain Russian public officials, and once again a critical report on human rights. All these are strong irritants for Moscow.

Moreover, as it turns out, the course is becoming harsher on both sides: The US is preparing for the elections, Vladimir Putin has won in Russia, and the "reset" already seems like something out of the past. In such a situation, the question of responsibility for deterioration of relations arises, and McFaul is very suitable for the role of the main symbol of "American imperialism." Perhaps a year ago, no one would have paid any attention to his statements in the Higher School of Economics. But now, interest in his every word is significantly higher, and each phrase is examined under a microscope. Moreover, in and of itself, the statement was rather friendly. Moscow primarily did not like the phrase concerning Russian-Kyrgyz relations. He called upon both countries to finally reject the "game with zero sum" and the attempts to divide the world up into spheres of influence. "When President Obama met with President Medvedev in 2009, he proposed his idea of the ‘reset,’ and said: ‘I am new here, I do not have a very good grasp of foreign policy, but I do not understand the phrase that you use – ‘privileged spheres of influence’," the diplomat said. "I especially do not understand this when the subject turns to Kyrgyzstan and Manas [Manas Transit Centre, formerly Manas Air Base -translator’s note]. Because, in Manas, we are not trying to play in spheres of influence around the Kyrgyz government." According to the ambassador, the American military presence in Manas was necessary for deployment of American military servicemen to Afghanistan. At the same time, both Russia and the US had tried to regulate the situation surrounding Manas in their own favour by means of bribes to former President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev. "You offered Mr Bakiyev big bribes, so that he would throw us out of Kyrgyzstan. We also offered him a bribe of about ten times less that what you offered, but this did not work," McFaul frankly admitted. Aside from that, the ambassador also expressed dissatisfaction at Moscow’s policy of exchanges. "We are trying to achieve our goals without tying in things that are not associated with each other," he said. "But your government is very fond of tie-ins. I am saying that from my own experience." Thus, the US encountered this in that same 2009. "In 2009, they (representatives of the Russian Federation) could say: ‘You want to come to agreement on Iran? Then make a concession on Georgia. You want to come to agreement on the missile defence system in Europe? Then make a concession on Central Asia. You want to come to agreement on North Korea? We can agree, if you do not raise the topic of democracy and human rights," McFaul noted. "But this is not our policy. We will not agree to such deals," he concluded.

It was specifically this block of statements that literally exploded the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry. Moreover, the reason here is associated certainly not with the fact that McFaul "lied," as Russian diplomats had said. The reason lies in the fact that McFaul told the truth, violating certain unwritten rules of diplomatic ethics. It is understandable that neither the US nor Russia can admit that they are "bargaining" in questions of military bases, Syria, Iran and human rights. It is also clear that such bargaining is more convenient for Moscow, because it is in a position of greater vulnerability in relations with the US, fearing to lose its sphere of influence, and primarily in the post-Soviet area. The Kremlin has many phobias. But the US also did not ignore the "bargaining," understanding that, if this leads to at least some positive shifts, that is already good. But the difference is that the US still has a choice in promoting its strategic interests: To enter into bargaining or to reject it, striving to achieve its end even without the principle support of Moscow. For Russia, this choice has been significantly narrowed, and a total rejection of bargaining would lead to victory for the isolationist trend. The feeling of hopelessness may give rise to a much harsher foreign policy line in the Kremlin. And in this situation, McFaul is a convenient target for discreditation: If they cannot refute what he says, they can try to discredit the source of the statements. With such approaches on both sides, the "reset" may really be left in the past.

Source: Politkom.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 31 May 12

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