The Post's coverage of Russia in December hasn't recovered from its November slump. The future looks uncertain too, due to the suspicious disappearance of Philip Pan. On December 8, Pan wrote an article describing the public outrage caused by the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management. However, the next article, on December 12, reporting on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev 's firing of 20 senior prison officials connected to the Magnitsky case was signed by a Nataliya Vasilyeva. Pan hasn't published anything since.
Philip Pan is a fine reporter, and his coverage of Russia has been, by and large, thoughtful and fair. If he's re-assigned (or simply moved on), let's wish him well in his new endeavor.
Mary Beth Sheridan reported on a meeting — on the sidelines of the Copenhagen U.N. climate talk — between Presidents Obama and Medvedev. Not surprisingly, the main topic of their discussion was the conclusion of negotiations over the START treaty, whose deadline expired on December 5. Although it was announced that both sides were "quite close" to reaching an agreement, some issues remained unresolved, and the signing of the new treaty isn't expected until January/February.
A guest contributor, Megan K. Stack, submitted a story describing attempts by the Moscow city government to fight heavy snowfalls by dispersing clouds. Remarkably, writing about a seemingly mundane technical issue, Stack managed to insert a "Soviet dictator Josef Stalin" in the first paragraph of the article and a "Chernobyl" into the second. Lines "Soviet heyday" and "Soviet era" casually followed. Honestly, I didn't grasp the connection between Josef Stalin and clouds in Moscow skies, but I must say that should Stack apply for a Post's Russia desk position, she appears to be unquestionably qualified.
(Regardless of what happened to Pan, his absence had little effect on Post's editorial coverage of Russia. I'm not surprised, since as I mentioned on numerous occasions, the Post's editors don't read what on-the-ground reporters write. Paraphrasing Picasso, they paint Russia not as they see it, but as they think of it.)
A December 17 editorial obituary for the father of Russia's market reforms, Yegor Gaidar, made every effort to portrait him as an enemy, if not victim, of the current regime. This dubious claim was somewhat softened by David Hoffman who quoted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as saying that Gaidar's passing was "a heavy loss for Russia, for us all." Sure enough, neither Hoffman nor the editorial mentioned that both Medvedev and Putin sent personal condolences to Gaidar's family.
Three op-ed articles — by Ivan Krastev, Jackson Diehl, and Ronald Asmus — touched upon different aspects of U.S.-Russia relations.
Krastev seems to belong to a part of Eastern/Central Europe political elites who believe that it's the United States' obligation to endlessly defend them from every imaginable military threat, especially, of course, emanating from Russia. Naturally, Krastev is concerned about the U.S. ability to deal with "insurgent" Russia, and, as his December 1 op-ed shows, Krastev doesn't like what he sees. He asserts that "Russians…view Obama's global reformism…as an expression of American weakness.'' Really? I personally am unaware of any statement by a top Russian official revealing such a sentiment. I thus strongly suspect that Krastev simply puts in Russians' mouth what he himself thinks about Obama's foreign policy.
Krastev's prescription to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations is therefore very simple: to show Russia its proper place.
"Obama must first demonstrate [to the Russians] that he does not need them. He needs a clear victory…against the Taliban in Afghanistan… Obama must show strength for the "reset" policy to succeed."
The idea that Obama must show "strength" to the Russians isn't new: Post's domestic authors write about that all the time. Krastev's opus is simply an imported version of the same. Yet I like Krastev's demand for a "clear victory…against the Taliban." It was recently reported that Bulgaria (where Krastev is from) is boosting its contingent in Afghanistan by 30 extra soldiers, bringing its total number to a whopping 300. What a powerful contribution towards "clear victory against the Taliban"! Seems to me that people like Krastev prefer to pay for their "victories" exclusively by American blood and treasure.
It's not only Krastev who cannot get a good night's sleep because of a "reset"; Diehl too suffers from a "reset" insomnia. He's unhappy that too much of the Obama administration's "diplomatic energy" went into the "reset", yet nothing has been gotten in return from Russia on Iran (which, according to Diehl, was "the main object of that reset"). Now Diehl presents Obama with a choice:
"If…Russia will respond to Tehran's intransigence [on nuclear issue] by supporting significant sanctions in the U.N. Security Council early next year, Obama's diplomatic strategy will have an indisputable success to parade. If it does not, it may be the Obama doctrine that gets a reset."
Make no mistake: it's not that Diehl can't wait until Obama succeeds on Iran; it's that he can't wait until Obama fails. Tying "reset" to Russia's reaction to a prospective U.N. sanction resolution, Diehl is attempting to torpedo any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. And if this inflicts political damage on the president in midterm-election year, so much better.
Asmus' piece reminded me of a popular Russian dish okroshka (a liquid version of pizza): it includes just a bit of everything Asmus hates about Russia. First, in passing, he trashed President Medvedev's draft treaty on European security ("we are on different planets when it comes to thinking about Europe's future"). He then turned to his golden years as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and told a story how, in 1999, he taught Western "values" to a deputy foreign minister of Russia — in vain, of course. Asmus then hopped to blaming Russia for the deterioration of its relations with the West:
"[W]e should…recognize that Russia's failure to align with the West may be less about our lack of will or imagination in embracing Moscow and more about Russia's own choice not to take advantage of the partnerships we offered."
Something (lack of space?) has prevented Asmus from naming precisely the "partnerships" (in plural!) that were offered to Russia by the West.
Asmus is OK with the "reset" ("President Obama is right to try to "reset" relations with Moscow. Dealing with a revisionist Russia requires engagement"). What helps to pump adrenaline in his blood is Russia's "spheres of influence." (The concentration of this hormone in Asmus's bloodstream went through the roof at the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 and never receded). Having remembered, all of sudden, the international rule of law, Asmus decided to remind "revisionist Russia" that "borders in Europe cannot be changed through force."
Commenting on Asmus' piece, a reader "ggreenbaum" observed (12/26/2009, 8:51:27 AM):
"I personally think it is rather modest of Russia to count spheres of influence in semi-hostile countries on its border. After all, Obama is telling us that we have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 8,000 miles from our borders…"
Finally, on December 29, Anne Applebaum treated us to a precious New Year gift. She dusted off her crystal ball and made predictions for the "decade to come." You're gonna love the results of this magic exercise: Applebaum's crystal ball told her that "authoritarian regimes are in trouble." Here is one example:
"…the newly opened gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and China…could — maybe, possibly — spell the beginning of the end of Eurasian domination by Gazprom and Russia."
I'd leave it to energy experts to decide whether a single pipeline could — maybe, possibly — undermine Gazprom's market position. But it's so heartening to see Applebaum clutching at her crystal ball and whispering: I wish, I wish, I wish.
Happy New Year!