strained ties with USA as "normal" for nonallied great powers

Text of report by Russian Gazeta.ru news website, often critical of the government, on 14 June

[Article by Fedor Lukyanov, editor in chief of magazine Rossiya v Globalnoy Politike [Russia in Global Politics], under the rubric "Authors": "Neither Friend Nor Foe"]

The Pew Research [in English] sociological service has published the new data from world polls on the attitude towards American policy. Among the most interesting results is the marked decline in assessments of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Compared with 2009 the number of people who have a favourable attitude towards it declined in China by 30 per cent, in Japan and in Muslim countries by 19 per cent, and in Europe by 15 per cent. In Russia the drop came to 18 per cent.

On the whole the reasons for the decline are clear. The level of expectations that were linked with Obama after his election was such that no one could have justified them. Especially since the first black-skinned president of the United States generously distributed advance notices, promising a new strategy for maintaining American leadership. Only a little of it worked out, and Obama had to spend much more time promptly responding to chaotic changes in different parts of the world than working on achieving the goals declared.

The decline in confidence in Obama was more peculiar in Russia than in other countries. Unlike the rest of humankind, Russian citizens were almost unaffected by Obama-mania in 2008.

In our country more than anywhere else, the belief that the name and personal characteristics of a president do not play a special role is widespread: America, they say, has a constant line (hostile to Russia, naturally) that does not change. So disappointments should not have happened, especially against the background of the catastrophic legacy left by Bush. Any successor of his was doomed to work to rectify the situation since the circumstances that had taken shape in the fall of 2008 were the worst since the time of early Reagan.

But then there is another factor too. Most Russian citizens simply did not believe that America could elect a person who was not white. Our society was inculcated with the idea of the permanent racism of Americans not even from Soviet propaganda but most likely from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, mandatory reading for many generations of children. And when, to universal surprise, it turned out that the racial factor did not really play a decisive role, one wanted to believe that this altogether extraordinary president would follow an altogether different policy. But that does not happen in political systems that have become fixed, and many people considered the absence of revolutions a disappointment.

If we look at things realistically and do not expect what is obviously impossible, Russia has no reason to be disappointed in Obama. He remains the most comfortable interlocutor for Moscow, and the point is not only the reset (which was successfully completed, since its agenda was fulfilled back a year and a half ago).

Although Obama did not change America’s course, he personally understands much better than most American politicians how much the world has changed and how much more flexibility and sensitivity (a quality that is not characteristic of Washington) is required of the United States to retain leadership positions. Pressure and efforts to reinforce dominance more and more often provide the opposite result. Obama’s attempts to rely on understandings and the cooperation of his opponents are considered manifestations of weakness, betrayal of American interests, and damage to the prestige of the United States.

Relations between Russia and the United States today are clearly strained, and not even a hint of the fruits of the reset is left, it seems. In just the last few days, there has been a series of jabs. The "exchange of pleasantries" between Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov over Syria: the secretary of state reported that she has information on deliveries of Russian combat helicopters to al-Asad’s regime coming soon, while the head of the MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] accused the United States of supplying weapons to the rebels. A group of senators demanded that the Pentagon sever commercial relations with Rosoboroneksport [Russian defence exports] and not acquire the helicopters and other equipment for the Afghan army and police which were agreed upon slightly over two years ago. The reason – the Russian company is supposedly helping Iran in its missile programme. In Congress the adoption of a new act on trade with Russia is expected: the legendary Jackson-Vanik amendment is fading into the past, yielding its place to a document that permits sanctions to be imposed against persons involved in the Magnitskiy affair and similar crimes. If to that we add this criticism of Russia for the law on rallies and searches of oppositionists, the impasse over missile defence, Vladimir Putin’s pointed absence at the summit meeting at Camp David in response to Obama’s refusal to come to Vladivostok this fall, and the escapades of Ambassador Michael McFaul, which have already become customary, the picture described is a dismal one. Is everything really so horrible? There is little that is radiant, but it is also too early to give up on relations.

In the first place, do not forget that there is an election campaign underway in America. Russia naturally is not at the centre of it, but there are plenty of peripheral clashes too. A similar period in Russia six months ago also abounded in not very pleasant rhetoric against the United States too – and we survived.

Secondly, we should single out hard-nosed bargaining using elements of propaganda warfare in order to dispose the opposite side to compromise. Thus, the disagreements on Syria and Iran now are especially fundamental, since in both cases the decisive moment is approaching.

In Syria Annan’s plan is on the brink of final failure, and the future dilemma is either joint work by everyone to ensure the transformation of power with the participation and guarantees of foreign forces, or intensified pumping of money and weapons to the Syrian opposition in order to raise its chances of victory in a civil war. In both scenarios accusations against Russia are useful on a purely applied level. To remind everyone that Moscow is only interested in money and nothing else in Syria. And at the same time, to add the argument in favour of supplying the opposition: if Russia arms Damascus, the free world is obligated to maintain the balance.

On the subject of Iran, the decisive round of talks in Moscow on the future of the nuclear programme is coming. The previous meeting in Baghdad ended practically without result, and the supporters of a moderate approach are placing great hopes on the new one. A psychological attack to raise the stakes would not hurt here either. Of course, in both cases the context of relations is very far from friendly, but there is nothing extraordinarily hostile either. Normal diplomacy of unallied great powers focused on achieving the necessary result, nothing personal.

In the third place, one should not ignore how the organs of the American executive branch of government, operating in conditions that are not too favourable, are trying to reduce the damage from the political outbursts. To illustrate, the State Department and the White House, in solidarity with the enthusiasm of the Republican supporters of adopting a "Magnitskiy list," were limiting its negative effect in all possible ways. Already last year, on a preventive basis, the State Department adopted its own list (not published and according to rumour a short one) in order to avoid the situation where under the pretext of the tragedy with Sergey Magnitskiy, Congress would begin to include everyone under the sun on the list of persons banned from entry. The trick itself with coordinating the list and the Jackson-Vanik amendment not only makes it possible to get rid of the absurd act of 1974 but also to impose visa restrictions in a particular case in a relatively routine legislative framework. Russia’s response in any case will be very negative, but of the different ways to put the list into effect, a relatively less traumatic one has been selected. Finally, the Pentagon, to which they are appealing regarding Syria and Iran, is in no way in a hurry to accommodate the demands to punish Russia and is officially distancing itself from the accusations stated by Clinton. It is much more important now for the war department to preserve stable cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan (equipment, freight, transit, routes, and other things) than to become involved in political games.

When it is a matter of complex and multilayered relations of countries that not so long ago were mortal enemies, one should not expect cloudless skies. The question is whether there is deliberate revving up for a conflict or it is friction resulting from objective and structural factors. In Russian-American relations today, there is no revving up for any inevitable confrontation, at least on the level of the top leadership. Which is not a guarantee against new crises, but at least leaves the hope of settling them.

Source: Gazeta.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 14 Jun 12

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