Obama II Downgrades Relations With Russia’s Kremlin?

Posted January 27th, 2013 at 6:17 am (UTC+0)

Beautiful Vera gloms on to US Amb. Michael McFaul. (Why not the guy in the nice red tie?) Despite Kremlin carping — or because of it — the American Ambassador has attained star status in Moscow. Photo: Joseph Kruzich

Scenes from three weeks of watching US-Russia relations in New York, Washington and Moscow:

 Kate, an old high school classmate, tracks me down to ask it if will be safe for her to take her 17-year-old adopted Russian daughter back to Russia for a visit this summer

 Ruslan, a 22-year-old adoptee of half-Russian, half Chechen descent, listens quietly as I try to explain why Russian officials cite horror stories to justify banning new adoptions by American parents. Nearby, the New Year’s Day table at his grandparents’ house in New England is covered with hams, curries and cakes.

 Last Monday night in Moscow, as official anti-Americanism matches the bitter cold outside Spaso House, I am inside cajoling, and nearly dragging, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul to a live VOA TV interview. Hands keep reaching out for handshakes. Russian guests keep blocking his path for photographs.

On the personal level, relations between Americans and Russians are as good as they have ever been. My 10-hour, every seat packed, Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow is testament to that.

But, on the official level, relations are bad.
And defying my innate optimism, I see no reason why this should change in the near future.

Last year’s pre-election “silly season” of anti-Americanism has morphed into the silly era.

Obama Administration officials believe that this is driven not by events, but by President Putin’s domestic political strategy. The Kremlin, they say, is using state-controlled television to create a straw foreign “enemy” to reverse a gradual erosion of popular support.

Russia’s powerful state media can reshape public opinion.

In 2010, 38 percent of Russians polled by the VTsIOM pollster said they opposed foreign adoptions. In a survey released by this state-controlled pollster on Jan. 18, the portion opposing adoptions by American families had doubled to 78 percent.

Moscow family marches against the ban on American adoptions. Photo: James Brooke

But there is another, more worldly Russia. On the average day, 1 million Russians eat a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Last month, 10 percent ordered Christmas presents from overseas. Last year, 15 percent of Russian adults vacationed outside the former Soviet Union. And, most threatening of all, 50 percent of Russians now use the internet.

For Americans, the adoption ban was the breakthrough issue. It brought the cranky new Kremlin home to the American public and to the American Congress. One American official described the mood in Washington as: “Disgust.”

Some Russian officials don’t get the message. At Foreign Minister Lavrov’s annual reception for foreign correspondents, also on Monday evening, Russian diplomats expressed optimism that President Obama will accept President Putin’s invitation for a one-on-one meeting in Russia.

That visit is unlikely to happen, my American sources say. The American President will attend the G-20 meeting in Russia in September. And that may be that. The 1,000-day clock on his presidency will start ticking. More than ever, the American president will devote his time to areas where he can make a difference and create a legacy.

St. Petersburg student Kate, outside a Manhattan cinema, enjoyed the British film version of Anna Karenina. She joined the flood of Russians who packed planes to enjoy New Year’s holiday in the U.S. Photo: James Brooke

Barring a major crisis, Washington will probably downshift relations. Without top level interest, one American official predicted that the relationship could easily descend into becWashington “sending a midlevel person to Moscow, to hear ‘no’ and then come home.”

Countries don’t have friends. Good will may not count for much in international relations. But civility between leaders does not hurt.

American officials note that during his four-year stint as prime minister, Vladimir Putin never visited the United States. Since returning to the Kremlin as president last May, Putin stood up Obama at the G-8 Summit at Camp David, showed up late for a bilateral meeting with Obama at the G-20 Summit in Mexico, and then presided over the Asia Pacific summit in Vladivostok for September, a time when the American president campaigning for re-election was unable to attend.

And then October brought the start of a series of expulsions of American programs in Russia.

In recent weeks, anti-Americanism reached the level of officials making weird charges that American adoptee parents were, variously: pedophiles, engaged in organ trafficking, interested in acquiring domestic servants, or preparing a legion of 50,000 Russian adoptee zombies to attack Russia.

Now the Duma is studying bills to ban Russian officials from marrying foreigners, to ban foreign passport holders from criticizing Russia on state controlled TV, and to fine officials who use English words in public. On Friday, the Duma gave initial approval to a vaguely worded bill that would ban “homosexual propaganda” that could be seen by minors.

But it would be a setback for Russia if Americans start taking Russian government rhetoric seriously and start writing Russia off as the kooky country.

Almost two decades ago, a Brazilian Finance Minister told me that, after years of annual inflation rates of several thousand percent, the biggest risk to Brazil was “irrelevancia.” The minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, went on to end Brazil’s hyperinflation, and to win elections as president.

Today, Brazil is far from irrelevant.

But, today, it sounds like déjà vu when I hear an Obama administration Russia expert exclaim: “We don’t need them. We don’t need the Russians.”

Next week: Why the Kremlin’s Leverage over Washington is Overrated

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

8 responses to “Obama II Downgrades Relations With Russia’s Kremlin?”

  1. Babeouf says:

    Before the US election Obama is recorded telling Medvedev things (on the ABM system in Europe) will be easier to agree after the election. After the election Obama agrees to do nothing on the US ABM program in Europe. If this is official US position there will be both a downgrading of US/Russian relations and a crisis. The thing that all the Western TV programs on Putin agree on is that he expects people who make deals to stick to them.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Au contraire.
    All Obama told Medvedev is that he would be in a more flexible position after the election.
    What kind of deal is that?
    Arms reduction deals are negotiated over years by dozens of experts and lawyers on both sides. They are then ratified by the parliaments of both countries.
    A stray prediction on negotiating flexibility is not a deal.

  3. So, the ‘Cold-War’ is back!.

    But, the question, from my point-of-view, has ‘always’ been: ‘did the Cold-War ‘ever’ end?

    Sometime during one of the winters of the early 1970’s (I believe it to have been 1974 -although it might even have been longer ago, in 1969-), I heard a commentary (probably on “R.S.P.A.P., ‘the voice of soviet public opinion'”), broadcast by a soviet radio service, to the effect, that, then current soviet-plan, was the ‘plan’ which began in 1939, and was scheduled to run until 1989, when it would be renewed, or modified; but, that it would not end. Although it might well appear that “socialism would have failed, this would not be so, socialism would only ‘appear’ to have failed, but that it would continue, although, quite possibly, in a different guise…”

    This is what I believe, happened. Although, western media, in general, appeared, in 1989, as well as since 1989, to have taken events in the soviet-union in 1989, at face-value, and accepted ‘…that communism is dead…’

    But, because of the political-commentary to which I allude, I, for one, have never fully believed that communism is dead. Also, I believe, that there is evidence, based on what Russia has done, since: in Armenia and Azerbaijan; Georgia, and elsewhere, since 1989, to prove the theory ‘…that, the more things change, the more they stay the same…’

    When I saw a night-time gathering of a crowd in Tblisi, on my satellite-reception of a Georgian state-television service, several years ago, to me, the scene was identical to a historical jigsaw-picture, of a similar gathering, which, I believe, was also supposed to have taken place in Tblisi, circa 1812, replete with the same ethnic flags being waived, and the oil-like lighting.

    Whether socialism / communism ever ended, or not, Russian attitudes towards the countries which surround it, and it’s involvement in their conflicts, appear to be on-going, even 201 years after the war, or war’s, of 1812.

  4. Reading some of Mark Twain’s writing, and the views of others, since, one has the impression, that, in general, American’s don’t like their politicians to be more clever than the people they represent.

    One also feel’s, that, at least, in so far as getting his way, the USA., currently has, its cleverest ever leader (I avoid using the word ‘smart’, as, I feel, that, hitherto, when American’s ‘have’ ascribed the word to their politicians, it hasn’t been intended as a compliment).

  5. I view “VOA TV.,” on 13 Degrees East of South, and have also been viewing on 9 Degrees East of South. But, this past weekend, the service which had, hitherto, been on 9 Degrees East of South, apparently vanished.

    Has it permanently ceased? Was it being uplinked from somewhere which has recently become a conflict-zone?

  6. Gennady says:

    Ciaran Mulcahy!
    1. You’ve misunderstood the article. The “Cold War” is dead and buried decades ago. The question mark in the title questioned the unquestionable and apparent: the long-lasted American patience towards Putin’s Russia has come to an end, there’s no light in the end “of the tunnel”. With the present level of anti-American, anti-western hysteria, suspicions and insinuations in the state monopolized mass media the continuation of intensive bilateral relations looks counterproductive. Russia under the current administration has become irrelevant.
    2. But I disagree with the mentioned Obama administration Russia expert who has exclaimed: ”We don’t need them (the Russians). Certainly, he meant the current Kremlin’s administration. We can’t cross out the history with the USA four times helping Russia at critical junctures. Even more. Our countries border each other, they are great (the USA by technology and economy, Russia by its resources and size), they have common values and never fought each other in the highly competitive world. Even in deep Russian provinces common people express regards to the Ford cars and other American brands (legacy of the above mentioned American aid). I wonder, why shouldn’t the USA and Russia enjoy each other to mutual benefit?
    3. Nowadays Russia functions very much as it was written in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the satire published in 1945. I strongly recommend it as a handbook on contemporary Russia. But in the age of the Internet and globalised world the Farm has no chances to survive for a long time. Please, don’t forget the difficulties “the Farm” has started to experience with the demography, science, technology, medicine, education and sluggish economy. It’s worth to mention overproduction of gas and oil as main contributors of hard currency.

  7. Olivia says:

    The article is crappy. It smells Anti-Russianism.

  8. “Anti-Russianism” may be the easy, and convenient way, to interpret the article.

    The fact is, that if Russia really has changed, and if (as the ‘west’ were beginning to express it), from the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, onward, Russia is genuinely sincere with regard to getting onwith the rest of the world, it is obvious that Russia, and other, former Warsaw Pact member nations need to come together.

    The invitation to Russia, ‘circa’ 1989, to join ‘NATO.,’ amazed some. The Russians felt themselves to be threatened. This is nothing to do with whether or not Russia is, or was, communist. The fact is that Russia needs assurance,and re-assurance that the offer is genuine.

    If Russia were to accept the offer, and were to take up the offer to join NATO., and the Group of Seven (and as some tried to call it for a while, by attempting to include Russia -the Group of Eight-), it is possible that perhaps these organizations could even move their headquarters to Moscow.

    That could be what it takes to convince all nations that they need to come together,



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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