Not surprisingly, the Washington Post's March coverage of Russia has been an intense warm up before the April 1 meeting, in London, between presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. Having established itself as a major foe of the emerging U.S.-Russia dialogue, the Post didn't miss a single opportunity to try to poison the atmosphere of the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.
Early attempts to undermine the summit have centered around the concept of a “grand bargain” — a deal that Obama has supposedly offered, in a letter, to Medvedev: Russia's cooperation on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for scrapping U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
It's worth noting that Obama’s letter to Medvedev wasn’t made public, and it's not known if any “bargain" was offered at all. What is known is that Obama has denied the proposed Iran-MDS swap (as reported by the Post's Karen DeYoung), and so has Medvedev (as reported by the Post's Michael Fletcher). As if grudgingly accepting this fact, a March 4 editorial proclaimed "No Deal", but still encouraged Obama to keep ignoring future Russian objections to MSD. The editorial went a step further by suggesting that the United States should deploy a Patriot missile defense battery to Poland "regardless of what is ultimately decided about the larger missile defense system."
Case closed? No. Two days later, David Kramer, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, decided to ride the dead horse of the "grand bargain" again. First, he offered a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of what the "grand bargain" was:
"The "bargain" is simple: in exchange for Russian cooperation on containing the Iranian nuclear threat…the United States would… scale back its relations with Russia's neighbors…and stay quiet about Russia's deteriorating human rights situation."
(Later in the piece, Kramer thundered: "Murders of journalists and human rights activists continue with no accountability and amid a growing sense of fear. Cracking down is the only approach Russian leaders seem to know.")
Admitting that the Russia policy of the previous administration was "far from perfect", Kramer nevertheless argued that "the chief problems lie in Moscow" and that "Moscow's thinking must change if the principal source of friction between Russia and the West…is to disappear." (Please appreciate Kramer's remarkable restraint: he didn't demand a "regime change" in Moscow.)
The conclusion of Kramer's piece is a marvel:
"Any "grand bargain" the United States makes with Russia would be viewed in Moscow as a sign of U.S. desperation. A major American shift in missile defense policy…would be seen as a sign of weakness…Yes, the United States should work with Russia…[But] we must not bargain away…our own values."
Our own values. Who said that the neocons as a species are extinct in Washington?
A few days later, on March 9, Robert Kagan offered a mild criticism of the Bush administration for its ignoring "the systematic dismantling of democracy in Russia." Kagan sounded visibly upset by the fact that "the issue of democracy and human rights" doesn't feature high on Obama's foreign policy agenda. Combining Kagan with Kramer, it would appear that the Post is determined to bring the issue of human rights in Russia to the forefront of U.S.-Russia relations.
This is interesting. Only a year ago, there was a lively discussion in Moscow on which of the two candidates, Democrat Obama or Republican McCain, would be a "better president" for Russia. The majority seemed to prefer Obama; yet some perceptive minds cautioned that Democrats pay too much attention to the issue of human rights, whereas Republicans are usually more "pragmatic." A message to our friends in Moscow: the issue of "Russia's deteriorating human rights" isn't an ideological platform. Rather, it's a bipartisan opportunistic tool.
In the meantime, on March 4, Philip Pan reported on the beginning of a new trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the trial that Pan interpreted as a "sign of internal Kremlin strife." Pan mentioned "one of Medvedev's advisers" (naturally unnamed) who "privately expressed hope that the second trial would be dropped."
On March 6, Glenn Kessler described the meeting, in Geneva, between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. The same day, Ann Scott Tyson reported on the first shipment of U.S. military cargo to Afghanistan through Russia. Tyson used the opportunity to quote Stephen Blank, "a Russia expert at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College", who opined that Russia's "absolute priority is holding on to their sphere of influence" in Central Asia by means of "excluding the U.S."
A March 13 editorial expressed concern about the dire economic situation in Ukraine and warned the "the stakes [there] are especially high":
"The weaker and more chaotic Ukraine becomes, the likelier it is that Russia will attempt to reassert hegemony over it. A Putinized Ukraine would be a disaster for that country, Europe and the United States."
(I guess a bankrupt Ukraine would be a lesser evil to the Post than Ukraine "putinized.")
On March 18, Philip Pan resumed his reporting from Moscow by covering President Medvedev's plans for military reform. The same day, in an article he co-authored with Karen DeYoung, Pan kind of resuscitated the idea of a "grand bargain" by arguing that the Kremlin was actually willing to explore a deal with Washington and was "more open to new sanctions against Iran than expected." Pan and DeYoung quoted The Nixon Center's Dmitri Simes who met Medvedev in Moscow and who felt that the Russian leader was interested in striking a strategic quid pro quo on Iran.
On March 21, Pan covered a news conference with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, who said that negotiations on new limits on nuclear warheads (within the framework of START talks) must be linked to the future of U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Pan, however, noted that "Ryabkov stopped short of saying missile defense would be a deal-breaker for a START agreement."
It'd be naive to expect that Anne Applebaum could stay on the sidelines of the discussion. She didn't. In a March 24 piece, after giving the Post's readers a crash course in using a computer "reset" button, Applebaum accused the Obama administration in living "in a virtual reality" — at least, as far as its relations with Moscow are concerned. Rejecting the notion that deteriorating relations between the two countries were due to some "technical complications" (and who argues to the contrary?), Applebaum observed – in a pretty much Krameresque fashion — that it's:
"[T]he profound differences in psychology, philosophy and policy that have been the central source of friction between the American and Russian governments for the past decade."
Following Applebaum's logic, it's only with countries that share the U.S.' "psychology, philosophy and policy" that the United States can have meaningful arms control negotiations.
On March 30, on the eve of the Obama-Medvedev meeting, the Post published another editorial. Apparently being unsure of which part of the U.S.-Russia dialogue they were unhappy with on this particular day, the Post's editors simply called on Obama to be tough on Medvedev ("or…Russia's de facto top ruler, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin"). They also extended more practical advice: to stuff the conversation with Medvedev with "a range of issues", including Iran's nuclear program, NATO expansion, and Russia's having "a region of privileged interest."
But the next day, the Post surprisingly published an op-ed by President Medvedev. Although carrying an olive-branch title "Building Russian-U.S. Bond", Medvedev's piece didn't cede any ground. Medvedev made it very clear that in in its relations with the United States, Russia has only one short-term priority: a speedy resumption of the arms control talks. Medvedev did offer a vague promise of cooperation on Afghanistan, but pointedly didn't even mention Iran.
Capping the topic with the next day's editorial, the Post praised Obama for "not seeking to develop a personal relationship with the Russian leaders", but, rather, focusing on "concrete interests." The editorial's conclusion is a gem:
"Mr. Obama is right to pragmatically pursue arms control agreements with Russia and to seek its cooperation on Iran and counterterrorism. But he must also make clear to the Kremlin that collaboration in those areas will never mean consent for Russian autocracy or neo-imperialism, and that as long as those policies persist, the regime's fantasy of a global partnership with the United States will remain just that."
Sounds perfectly Krameresque, doesn't it? Or should I say: Kafkaesque?