Or, more accurately, our leadership is. Most Americans don’t think much about Russia at all. We went from anti Soviet, to pro Soviet, to anti Soviet again quite deftly from 1918 to 1949. Today I’d say the average American is both indifferent to and ignorant of Russia. But the elites care . . . a lot.
Consider the recent Russian presidential elections; they were by all accounts highly democratic and transparent. Indeed, webcams and observers were deployed across the huge Russian territory. Voters may not have always liked the choices, or lack thereof, but they share this with most democracies. Most important, there is no doubt Putin won with a mandate much bigger than Obama or before him Bush or any other American president in recent memory with more than 60% of the vote. Yet our media like to use phrases like “Russian democracy, such as it is” and other obnoxious criticisms, as if the Russian democracy were not 10 times more transparent and functional than its Soviet predecessor or the democracies of client states of Iraq or Afghanistan, where everyone votes for extreme Islamic parties.
We also think of their military as backwards and cruel in the extreme. But is it? Consider the treatment of war crimes in Chechnya; Russia, to its credit, has meted out severe sentences of ten years plus, whereas the American perpetrators of war crimes such as the Hamdania murder escaped in some cases with “time served” and remained in the service. Now, military justice is a tricky thing, and I have sympathy for soldiers in every country put in these “no win” counterinsurgency campaigns. But it does say something about Russia that its regard for the law of war is high enough that serious crimes are punished in a manner as harsh, or more harshly, than equivalent crimes by the American military.
American elites don’t like Russia in some cases because they are stuck in the past. If you’re a “sovietologist” at the CIA in 1989, you want to keep your job. So you must make Russia continually relevant by exagerrating its threat potential. In some cases, the critics seem to have old ethnic scores to settle. Or perhaps a little of both. Either way, Obama was correct in seeking a reset with Russia. But that reset should not be based in extravagant displays of American weakness. This is Obama’s preferred method–and he pursued it here with his no-strings-attached abandonment of European missile defense–but this approach is unnecessary and serves Obama’s broader, unpatriotic purposes in foreign policy. We have other allies in the region too, as well as our own self-respect to consider. We’d be much better off to scale back our military aid to Georgia and our foreign policy criticism of Russia’s anti-terrorism measures.
Most important, we should invite Russia to joint us in a new partnership based on our shared concerns: anti-terrorism, cordoning militant Islam, attacking piracy, and keeping China focused on commerce rather than military expansion. With a focus on these shared concerns, we can have a solid partnership built on the firm foundation of mutual self-interest. Instead, we have a policy of pointless antagonism coupled with the occasional demonstration of America’s indifference to its friends in the former Warsaw Pact. This is the worst of both worlds, and it threatens our own relations with Russia as well as the security of our allies.