Americans living in Moscow are suffering from mental whiplash.
During Russia’s recent presidential election, we enjoyed the moral high ground.
Our politicians, we thought smugly, would never stoop to reviving the Cold War to wake up their conservative bases.
But, in a city where snow fell on April Fool’s Day, it’s dangerous to walk with your nose in the air. Ice still covers many sidewalks here.
Yes, Mitt Romney pulled a Putin.
“Russia is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” the leading Republican Party presidential candidate warned CNN TV anchor Wolf Blitzer.
Similar to Vladimir Putin alleging Washington was behind last winter’s democracy protests, Romney was targeting his party’s elderly base.
Romney followed up with “Bowing to the Kremlin,” a Foreign Policy website article that concluded: “For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: “We give, Russia gets.”
Then, The Washington Post popped Romney’s balloon by digging up a poll conducted last year for CNN. It revealed a generational Grand Canyon in American attitudes toward Russia. For the Cold War generation, 47 percent of Americans polled over age 50 saw Russia as unfriendly toward the United States. In a flip, 70 percent of American adults aged 18 to 49 saw Russia as ‘friendly.”
Separately, in a U.S. News/Chicago Tribune poll conducted in the United States last week, 78 percent responded negatively to Romney’s “number one geopolitical foe” remark.
Putin and Romney may have been separated by birth and class – one in working class Leningrad and the other in upper class Detroit. But they cling to comfortable Cold War worldviews, at least in public.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, some Americans thought that Russian real politik would soon reassert itself. The positive thinking was that last winter’s anti-Americanism was an electoral gimmick designed to animate lethargic voters.
Immediately after Putin won the March 4 Presidential election, a high Foreign Ministry official chirped that Moscow assumed the three-year-old reset policy with Washington was on track. On Afghanistan, Moscow tentatively agreed to allow NATO cargo jets to refuel at Ulyanovsk, an air transit hub on the Volga. Then in Seoul, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev declared that, on his watch, U.S.-Russian relations have been the best in a decade.
Addressing Romney, President Medvedev told reporters: “It is 2012, not the mid-1970s.”
On Sunday, US Vice President Joe Biden picked up this theme, saying of Romney on CBS: “He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on, Russia is still our major adversary. I don’t know where he has been.”
In Moscow, some Americans assumed that, with the elections over, the Kremlin’s party line had changed. Russia is hemorrhaging $10 billion a month. The government relies heavily on high oil prices to pay its bills. To diversify the economy, the Kremlin courts foreign investors.
Then, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul stepped out of his car — and into a strange piece of political theater.
Two steps from entering a building that houses a Russian human rights group, he was accosted by a camera crew from NTV, a channel that is notorious for hit jobs on Russia’s opposition.
On one level, it was simply an ambush interview – the kind perfected years ago by American TV crews.
But this one came with theatrical extras – two men dressed as Cossacks planted nearby. A third man held a large sign that read in Russian: “What price for the Motherland?”
Annoyed by the set-up, the ambassador told the NTV reporters: “This is against the Geneva Convention, if you are going to receive my information from my telephone or from my BlackBerry.”
After the interview, McFaul tweeted: “I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?”
In another tweet, he asked the key question: ““Everywhere I go, NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar?”
NTV responded that they knew about the meeting due their network of informants.
A more realistic analysis is that the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, is still wiretapping Russian human rights groups.
A not so benign analysis is that the FSB is reading the Ambassador’s email and BlackBerry messages. (Officials at Research in Motion, the developers of BlackBerry, do not publicize the fact that, under Russian law, the FSB has the legal authority and capability to monitor BlackBerry messages.)
The Kremlin has worked long and hard to tap into communications from the embassy.
In the mid-1970s, American embassy officials did not believe that interest in historic preservation prompted Soviet authorities to renovate an early 18th century church with a bell tower that rose above the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound.
Church bells stopped ringing in the six story bell tower in 1929, the year the Soviets confiscated Nine Martyrs Church. After the mid-1970s restoration, American diplomats referred to bell tower as “Our Lady of the Microphones.”
At that time, in 1975, Putin joined the KGB in Leningrad. His first job was to monitor foreigners and consular officials.
That Russia’s intelligence services still try to monitor telephone and email traffic by American diplomats is no surprise. That this information may be used for staging and filming political “provokatsii” evokes Leningrad of 35 years ago.
Last week, Konstantin von Eggert popped any illusions Americans might have about Putin 3.0 – his third term which starts May 7.
“Putin doesn’t like America,” von Eggert wrote last week in his Due West column, which is distributed by Ria Novosti, a state-controlled news agency. “All the explanations that that his anti-U.S. rhetoric is just an electoral trick are vacuous. The man says pretty much the same thing at every opportunity: America has discriminated against Russia in global affairs ever since the end of the Cold War.”
He concludes: “The general perception of America as competitive and hostile is no doubt part and parcel of Putin’s and the Kremlin’s thinking.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor under President Carter, said of Putin in a CBS News interview last week: “He’s clearly driven by nostalgia for the past and the (Soviet) super-national status.”
From the other side, Romney warns of Russia in his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” He writes: “We are now obliged to be wary and vigilant once more, because by mid-century, our grandchildren may well view Russia with the same concern that we and our parents once did.”
So, one year from now, journalists may be reporting, from a frozen lake in rural Michigan, that President Romney and President Putin are grimly trying to bond — over ice fishing.
Meanwhile, in Moscow this year, a new spring season for Russian-American relations may have come and gone – before the first yellow daffodils had a chance to arrive. It reminds me of the yellow tulips I gave a Russian friend over the weekend. She kept hopefully dipping her nose to the bouquet of scentless flowers.