Pravda On The Potomac-7 (What The Washington Post Wrote About President Obama’s Visit To Russia)

Overshadowed by a pop hysteria over the death of Michael Jackson, the first bona fide summit between presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev took place in Moscow on July 6-8.  The way Obama's visit to Russia was covered in the mainstream U.S. media suggests that his administration's attempts to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations will be met with profound skepticism, if not outright hostility, in certain corners of the U.S. political beau monde.

Given the frenetic activity demonstrated by the Post's authors on the eve of the first Obama-Medvedev meeting in London in April – and a suspicious lack, in May and June, of any interest in their second in Moscow – I expected a bit of passion from the Post's "regulars" in the early days of July.  I was wrong.

Only David Ignatius showed up, which was already unusual: the sophisticated Ignatius – he has a strange, for a Post's columnist, habit of traveling to a country before writing about it — was an unorthodox choice for the pre-summit Kremlin bashing.

"As Barack Obama packs for his trip to Russia next week, he should bring along a copy of "The Brothers Karamazov." For the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin is still struggling with the same political riddles that Fyodor Dostoyevsky described 130 years ago."

This is how Ignatius began his July 2 piece.  I kind of see his point: Ignatius has just returned from Moscow, where he took part in a conference under the somewhat shrinkish headline, "What Does Russia Think?"  It appears that some of the Russian participants of the conference did sound as having just stepped out of the pages of Dostoyevsky's novels.  Consider this:

"Nervous Russians are 'running away from their freedom', offered a leading sociologist."

Or this:

"[A] Russian who is a prominent politician suggested: "The real problem is that we don't understand what we want."

Indeed, in the country featuring such "leading sociologists" and "prominent politicians", Fyodor Mikhaylovich would be an island of a mental stability.

Hiding behind quotes of unnamed "key advisers" to Medvedev and Putin, Ignatius seems to be at least mindful of a popular complaint in Moscow that "America's past actions had threatened Russia's security and the Kremlin wasn't about to forget it."  And this is how he finishes his second piece of July 5:

"The Obama magic, so evident in his other trips abroad, isn't likely to work in Moscow this week. A real reset of Russian-American relations will require intense discussion and some serious give-and-take — something that neither side is ready to offer."

Nice prediction about "the Obama magic", and a correct one (see below). 

Continuing the Dostoyevsky theme (albeit without calling him by name), Mark Medish, a former National Security Council official, laments that "[t]he whole Obama phenomenon does not translate well into Russian", for "Obama is a visionary pragmatist, while the Russian political elite is full of cynical realists."  Medish then plunges into an adventurous excursion to the depth of the Russian language:

"Empathy — the centerpiece of Obama's philosophy — does not have an exact Russian counterpart. The words "sochuvstvie" and "soboleznovanie" are closer to sympathy. The word "sostrandanie" means compassion. But empathy, the idea of putting yourself into somebody else's shoes as a way to think about the world, is a distinct concept. And it is not one that can be elegantly rendered into Russian."    

Having established Obama's moral superiority over his Russian counterparts and having warned the Russians not to confuse Obama's "intellectual solitude" for "weakness", Medish surprisingly proceeds with a call on Obama to "urge Russians to put away Cold War thinking" and to "show that Americans are doing the same" (by repealing, for example, the Jackson-Vanik amendment). 

(You never know with these Post's authors — just like with Dostoyevsky's characters.  And, by the way, Mr. Medish, the Russian for "empathy" is "soperezhivanie") .

Michael Fletcher was dispatched to Moscow to help Philip Pan cover the summit, and for the next couple of days, the two didn't seem to have had much sleep.  On July 5, they produced their first article with a broad outline of the summit's agenda.  The next day, Pan specifically elaborated  on the challenges faced by the two countries in the area of nuclear arms control.  Later the same day, Fletcher and Pan reported on the set of joint documents signed by Obama and Medvedev after their first day of talks.  On July 7, Fletcher covered Obama's mini-summit with Putin, his address to the New Economic School, and his meeting with Russian opposition leaders.  He also expressed the common among American journalists feeling — a peculiar combination of a surprise and disappointment — about the lack of any signs of "Obamamania" on the streets of Moscow.  (Ignatius was right).  Finally, showing obvious signs of fatigue, Pan mumbled about the Obama-Medvedev-Putin love  triangle. 

On July 8, Fletcher and Pan began to wrap it up by quoting officials and pundits:

"I can't think of a summit that was so comprehensive in what we are trying to do as a government," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president…"

"Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, said Obama's visit was more successful than most in Russia had expected. Obama "made all the right sounds in a very respectful way" and did much to reduce mistrust in Moscow, he said."

In a touching parallel track, Robin Givhan was following the first lady Michelle Obama's part of the visit, beginning with her arrival in Moscow "wearing a bright coral dress, jacket and flats that splashed color into a teeth-chattering, overcast afternoon."   Repeating, in a sense, a surprise at Muscovites being immune to Obamamania, Givhan sounds puzzled that the "street chatter here have focused on her [Michelle's] White House kitchen garden rather than her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service."

"Her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service."  Is this the order in which Robin Givhan rates Michelle Obama's remarkable qualities?

(I too was somewhat puzled with Givhan's description of Moscow streets as "filled with grand czarist architecture."  Could it be that Givhan was writing her reports sitting in a hotel room and watching a video about my beloved St-Petersburg?).

Givhan concluded her Michelle Obama trilogy with describing the first lady's visit to the St. Dimitriy Orphanage and expressing regret that Mrs. Obama's activities in Moscow didn't include a major public speech.  (I concur).   

It wasn't until July 7 that the Post published its first and the only editorial covering the summit.  The editorial was a net positive in its assessments of what Obama has achieved in Moscow, giving him guarded praise for "a good-faith attempt to work pragmatically with…reality."  But the Post's editors didn't mince words renouncing what they called the Kremlin's desire to use the results of the summit to "cling to the illusion that Moscow's imperial power can somehow be recaptured." 

The editorial called on Obama to keep pressure on the Russians (in particular, in "an effort to coax Russians away from their leaders' misguided ideology") and urged him not to sacrifice "relations between the United States and its Central European NATO allies" when negotiating with Moscow the future of missile defence. 

In a couple of more days, the creme of the Post's Russophobia team, Anne Applebaum and Charles Krauthammer, reminded us that they are still alive and didn't stop thinking about Russia.

If Applebaum wanted to be ridiculous with her July 9 piece, she definitely has succeeded.  Read this:

"Forget the nuke deal, forget the speech, forget even the Russians' lack of interest in Michelle: The real surprise of President Obama's trip to Moscow this week was that he spent most of his time talking to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and took only a couple of hours to pay a courtesy call on the Russian prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin."

In the core of Applebaum's contrarian approach is a not-so-original point of view that one doesn't need to waste time talking to President Medvedev because everything in Russia is being decided by his prime minister.  But Applebaum offers a fresh, absolutely irrefutable, argument to prove this point again:

"Someone who took part in a meeting with them some months ago told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes." 

Brilliant!  Has it occurred to Applebaum that the described "meeting" could have been a Cabinet report with the head of the Cabinet — and who else? — doing "all the talking"?

(Could it be that Applebaum is trying, if even subconciously, to elevate the status of Putin's visit to Poland this coming fall, the visit that her husbund, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, is organizing?).   

Breaking with the Post's editors, Krauthammer asserts that Obama's (whom Krauthammer calls a "foreign policy neophyte") visit to Moscow wasn't simply a failure.  Krauthammer insists that the "Joint Understanding" signed by the two presidents is outright detrimental to U.S. national security.  Why?  Because by agreeing to proceed with a new START treaty, Obama has allowed Moscow to link offensive and defensive nuclear weapons.  

An apostle of the zero-sum-game approach, Krauthammer believes that any talks with Moscow that take into account Russia's concerns is a sign of American "weakness."  (But let's just wait for a few weeks until Krauthammer will be fuming that Russia doesn't take seriously U.S. security concerns).  And nuclear arms control negotiations are in particular meaningless given the U.S. "huge…technological advantage in defensive weaponry" ("the decisive strategic factor of the 21st century", in Krauthammer's words).  Krauthammer sees the future of U.S.-Russia relations in remarkably crystal terms: 

"We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile.  They cannot."   

Listen carefully to this line.  We'll be hearing it often in the months to come: from Krauthammer himself and those who, like Krauthammer, are upset with the Obama administration's budget cuts on missile defense.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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13 Responses to Pravda On The Potomac-7 (What The Washington Post Wrote About President Obama’s Visit To Russia)

  1. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I’d certainly agree with you re: Dostoyevsky. That’s very true: Russia never stops producing characters of the Dostoyevsky caliber. But what does it prove except that Dostoyevsky was a great Russian writer? 🙂
    But I feel that your assertion about inablility of the Russians to formulate their vital interests is a bit overdone. To begin with, the Russians don’t say “nyet” to a lot of things. Actually, only to the two: NATO expansion and missile defense in EE. That’s about it; in the rest, Russia’s position is quite flexible.
    At the same time, they are “da” to a pan-European architecture that would take into account their (and other countries’) security needs. They are “da” to the international solution of the Afghani problem. There are a few more “da”‘s, but you get my point.
    I’m afraid that living permanently in the US, I’m not in such a close contact with the Russian “masses” as you seem to be, but the Russians I do know are mostly in favor of Russia’s integration into the “world.” As for the “evil West”, they seem to understand that the “West” as such simply doesn’t exist. There are countries that the Russians consider friedly (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Finland, to name just a few) and … less friendly (the UK and, quite unfortunately, the US).
    Needless to say, the economic models we’re practicing here are quite different from the ones in Western Europe. And, I guess, there is no need to remind you which country in particular is widely blamed in Europe for the current economic crisis. Do you really expect Russians to blame Zimbabwe?
    Besides, condemning a country and regularly traveling there goes very well everywhere. Have you ever thought why so many people defend democracy in Russia? Because it’s much nicer to defend democracy sitting in a Starbucs with a view on the Kremlin than doing the same in a street cafe, say, in Kabul.
    Thank you for your comment and best regards,

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Very much appreciate your thoughful comments. Actually, we’re pretty much in agreement.
    Absolutely agree with you that Russia has nothing attractive to offer to its neighbors (military or otherwise). Absolutely agree that Russians have no one but themselves to blame for the crisis. The banking system is a shame, true. I’d slightly pause for the diversification, though, as I don’t think it’s possible to diversify the old monstrous Soviet economy in 10 or even 20 years — AND paying off the huge debt.
    Totally agree that the way Russia treats some of its neighbors is often a disaster (like a Vice-Speaker of the Duma, Lubov Sliska, telling in the face of Nino Burjanadze — at a conference — that Georgia isn’t a “real” state).
    However, coming back to where we began, I’m not sure that every NO needs to be followed by a reasonable alternative. Here is what I mean by that:
    I feel that at least the best of the Russian elites (definitely Putin-Medvedev) sincerely want to modernize the country. All they’re asking for (from the “West”:)) is not to create additional security problems to them. They consider NATO inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine as a threat as well as AMD in EE. What kind of “alternative” should they offer when saying NO? Especially when the purpose of both is somewhat dubious.
    Finally, I agree that there is some anti-Americanism among both Russian “masses” and, more troubling, parts of the elites (as there is enough Russophobia in the US at many levels). However, I don’t see that animosity against the US drives the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
    Thanks again for the great discussion.
    Best Regards,

  3. Leo says:

    Thanks for injecting “fresh” steam into our discussion.
    Perhaps if I were Eugene, religiously reading the Washington Post and lamenting over it, I would adopt Condie’s approach. Forgive Ignatius, ignore AA, punish Krauthammer. Because I have never been able to understand where AA is coming from in her reports and op-eds. Her interview with “Ekho Moskvy” was completely bizarre, in my opinion.
    Back to the topic of our discussion (which is somewhat tangential to Eugene’s original post), I suggested than every “Nyet” from Russia should be followed by an alternative offer. Granted, Russia has other headaches right now and its resources are quite limited and no match for “the collective West”. But is Russia an example of anything that other newly independent states of the FSU can follow? Unfortunately, not. But there is competition. If Russia has nothing to offer in spite of the geographic, linguistic and cultural proximity, then well… someone else will.
    As I tried to describe in my previous post, the NATO question cannot be reduced to “pushing the advocacy” by the western powers. How else the FSU countries are supposed to build modern militaries if the largest military in the region is as un-modern as could be? When the commander-in-chief of that largest military says that Ukraine is not a country? Please enlighten me, because I don’t see a whole lot of alternatives for the FSU countries. Not that I am advocating admitting unstable 18 y.o. countries with not yet fully defined identity into a military alliance of any kind. Because instead of solving security issues such a move may actually create security issues. But I am just trying to discuss the choices that the newly independent countries face.
    As for the OSCE resolution, do you really expect anyone to admit the appeasement unless the issue is forced somehow? Would it not be better to expose this appeasement policy at the same forum instead of reacting afterward (as Russia usually does)? Yes, it needs to be stated in any and all historical discussions that the scare of Communism was so big that the Western powers deemed acceptable to look the other way. Just to make sure that the Nazi Germany goes East and attacks the Soviet Union. And Russia should champion these historical discussions. However, the mere acknowledgment of the western appeasement prior to WWII does not change the nature of the two regimes that the OSCE resolution is about.
    All the best,

  4. Mike, Leo-
    Thank you both for keeping the “store” alive. I’m in Russia on vacation — absorbing if not fresh ideas, then fresh sentiments and emotions 🙂 – and will respond to your great posts upon my return (after 8/10)/

  5. Leo says:

    I hope you enjoy your stay in SPB, looking forward to the same this fall.
    I will try to be brief on this one. I hardly read any “mainstream press” any more. Only the Financial Times because of its excellent analytics (with some hiccups, of course). I do agree that most of this mainstream press gets the events in Central and Eastern Europe quite wrong. Simply because the journalists don’t understand the historical experiences and internal dynamics of those countries. But, realistically speaking, why bother if the elites of most of these countries (and some of the population as well) are eager to embrace the Western institutions as the best available option? And they (the elites) are willing to dance to whatever tune is required to get in?
    Which brings be to my next point that I may have failed to get across in my previous posts. There is competition for everything, and most importantly for influence. Is there somebody to compete with Brzezinkis (and Bidens) of this world for the ear of the USG? I would not overestimate the influence of the two, but competing viewpoints just aren’t out there. Is it really the fault of the “evil” Poles of the Chicagoland? Or rather those coming from the FSU and, while considering themselves Russian, caring little to get their (our?) act together?
    Now to the question of what Russia can offer. While I agree that sometimes it is better to keep quiet (as in your U2 example), if one is unable to influence the events. But this is not how Russia behaves toward the FSU, is it? Instead of quietly spreading (or restoring) its influence, the modern-day Russia “growls” at every turn as someone striving for relevance (or attention).
    Russia could offer an example to follow, a successful economic model, a modern military based on Soviet-designed equipment, competitive infrastructure. Has it been able to offer any of that? No, unfortunately. And this only requires getting the house in order rather than external financial commitments that Russia cannot afford.
    I will conclude on this, brevity has been my muse this evening.
    All the best,

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Leo, Mike-
    Thanks a lot again for the great discussion you’ve had here — making it abundantly clear that I’m totally dispensable 🙂 Being very late to the board and having no desire to beat horses you’ve so skilfully killed, just a couple of short notes.
    I’m not obsessed with the WP as such. My major interest is in mapping the sources of anti-Russian activity in the US. The WP is one of them and very accessible at that, which is very important for me given that I’m not a professional. I wish I could cover WSJ, Baltic/Polish Lobby, think tanks, etc., but I don’t have time.
    Leo, I totally agree that Russia has nothing to offer to the FSU countries, including military equipment. Yet, I don’t understand why this justifies NATO membership. Many countries (Israel comes to mind first) buy our military stuff w/o being member of any alliances.
    I too totally agree with both of you that Russia, quite regretfully, doesn’t have a coherent policy in the “near abroad.” Part of that, IMHO, is that in its desire to be a “great power”, Russia pays attention to “great powers” only: the US, UK, France, Germany, etc. Ukraine and Georgia, not to mention Stans, isn’t just sexy enough for the Russian foreign policy elites.
    (Some already have accused me in being paranoid in my calls for Lavrov’s resignation. Yet, I insist that Lavrov is part of the above problem. He spent almost all his professional life dealing with the US and he almost automatically substitute Russia’s foreign policy for Russia-US relations. Worse, he often confuses the latter with his personal relations with the US Secretary of State, be her Condi or HRC).
    Pretending that the muse of brevity visited me too, I’m stopping here.
    Talk to you later guys,

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    With regards to your observation that “things aren’t looking all so bad”, no reason to argue further. You, Leo and I are sophisticated enough to see the glass simultaneously full, empty and everything in between.
    As for the latest move on Ukraine, I’m a bit at loss. There are many ways to show Russia’s displeasure with Yushchenko short of not sending a new ambassador. If Russia wants to meddle in the upcoming presidential election (which it should, my imperial stance notwithstanding :), then it’s imperative to have someone in charge on the ground (i.e. in Kiev) now, not later or never.
    But a passionate lover of conspiracy theories as I am, I consider other explanations. For example, this move might be a reflection of behind-the-scene battle to keep Zurabov (who’s IMO a terrible choice) off the job. As we discussed before, MID sounded very unhappy with his appointment. How about that: Lavrov pressed Putin, Putin pressed Medvedev, Medvedev agreed to “postpone” Zurabov arrival in order not to reverse his decision?

  8. Hi yet again Eugene & Co:
    Upon further pondering Medvedev’s letter to Yushchenko, I consider a different idea from what has been offered (at least from what I’ve seen in the choking of qualitative input wonkdom out there).
    With Yushchenko’s low poll numbers in mind, it can be said that Medvedev is giving consideration to Ukrainian public opinion at large.
    Ukraine has enough Russia friendly folks for Russia to get by (at least in the short term) without having an ambassador there. Besides, it’s not the same as cutting diplomatic relations altogether. I take it that there’s still a Russian embassy staff in Ukraine.

  9. Okay Eugene.
    We will see how this all plays out. Thereafter, we could still see different takes. Afterall, there’s still commentary saying that Russia started last year’s war in the former Georgian SSR.
    For now, I’m comfortable enough with Medvedev’s letter possibly being related to your comment on Zurabov and/or the opinion of Medvedev’s note supporting Ukrainian public opinion.
    It’ll be interesting to see if Zurabov ever makes it to Kiev as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. If not, it won’t be the first time someone has been replaced after being hired and before actually working at the given position.
    As of right now and when considering the overall nature of Russo-Ukrainian relations (a unique relationship when compared to many other relations between a set pair of nations), IMO, Medvedev’s letter will likely not result in too much of a change either way.
    Concerning Medvedev’s note:
    I don’t expect the extreme wing on the Orange side to change their views of Russia. The same probability of non-change is likely from the pro-Russian elements in Ukraine. My hunch is that the status quo will also remain the same between these two groupings. By their more neutral approach, a good number in this last mentioned category will see fault with Medvedev’s letter, while also feeling that Yushchenko’s manner has been negative as well.

  10. Agree Eugene.
    As I suggest when first bringing up M’s letter at this thread, there seems to be what can be considered as a diplomatically heavy-handed aspect to some of what we’ve seen from M’s presidency on foreign affairs. (In addition to his letter, the way Abkahzia’s and South Ossetia’s independence were suddenly recognized, to the apparent surprise of some Kremlin connected Russian foreign policy elites.)
    It’s well worth noting the other intricacy you mention which involves Ukrainian politics.

  11. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks much for your comments.
    We’re certainly in agreement re: Russia’s diplomacy (or better said, lack thereof) in the CIS area.
    Well, I don’t want Lavrov’s blood. As you know, in Russia, the farthers you can go after dismissal is to the rank of an advisor to the president or PM. I simply believe that MID needs a new ledership; besides, Medvedev needs “his” own FM at the helm (Lavrov being Putin’s).
    IMHO, Medvedev’s letter to Yushchenko is troubling because it serves no serious purpose. Even more troubling is that Ukraine joins (as the second number after Georgia) the seemingly growing list of the countries (Byelorussia is to become third?) with whose leaders Moscow doesn’t want “to deal.” (The U.S. perhaps can afford not to deal with Iran, but Ukraine and Georgia are Russia’s neighbors).
    But the most troubling aspect of the whole Zurabov story is that it might have nothing to do with Russia-Ukraine relations at all. Rumors are now emerging — justifying my conspiracy theory instincts — that Zurabov appointment was de facto blocked by Gazprom people (and you certainly remember that Medvedev used to be Gazprom’s Chairman) who don’t want him in control of the gaz distribution in Ukraine. The letter itself might have been used as a pretext to keep Zurabov from Kiev.
    We’ll see what follows.
    Best Regards (and I asked the muse to deliver them to you in person when she visits you next time).

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful comment.
    I share your restraint re: Yushchenko. Even if the scenario that you’re descibing won’t materialize as is, there are always ways for perhaps not Yushchenko personally, then for a member of his clan to get elected.
    As I said, we already have Georgia whose leadership Moscow doesn’t want to deal with. And it’s looking increasingly clear that this leadership will be around for at least 2013. Now, what will happen if we have a new leadership in Kiev Moscow doesn’t want to deal with? Wait until 2015?
    I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to watch/read Medvedev’s interview with NTV at the end of July. Medvedev actually sounded very reasonable implicating (at least, this is how I was hearing him) that Russia should apply “softer” approach to its neighbors — perhaps, even making some economic concessions (sounded like about lower gaz prices to me).
    Unfortunately, not only nothing happened in this direction. Moreover, Medvedev’s letter has been completely in spite of his talk. I see no logic in it. That’s why I still want to believe that the reason for this letter was different. For example, just keeping Zurabov out of Kiev. Cynical? Sure. But at least makes sense.

  13. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the link which I missed as I don’t carefully follow the events in the N Caucasus.
    First, I’d question Doukaev’s assertion that courting Zakaev has something to do with the recent spike of violence in the region. These negotiations started a couple of years ago and since then, have followed their own logic.
    Second, I think that Doukaev is wrong again by hoping (?) that what he calls “the Zakaev team” will have their own say in Chechnya’s politics. If Zakaev is to return to Grozny, this will happen exclusively on Kadyrov’s terms, and the only role Zakaev may play is of a “distant second” to the boss.
    As far as Kadyrov is concerned, this will be a huge boost to his popularity. I’m not sure however that Zakaev’s return will significantly improve the security situation there. Some people say that Zakaev hasn’t been controlling anyone since long time. One needs Doky Umarov to “return” to make things seriously better.
    Mike, I’m using this opportunity to thank you again for the letters/notes you send my way. Please be assured that I read all of them religiously if even don’t react in public.
    Best Regards,

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