Saturday, July 11, 2009

• Obama’s Russian Misadventure

The recent representation of America at the Moscow summit delivered a mutually agreed-to target for the removal of some nuclear warheads and launchers. Almost. The relationship was neither improved nor set back, and America achieved little beyond being dealt a little embarrassment at the hands of Putin. The mainstream media (MSM) is applauding the event as a job well done. What meeting could it possibly be writing about with such approval and commendation?

Getting rid of antiquated and cumbersome warheads, 2,200 down to 1,500 or so, and trimming delivery rockets from 1,600 to around 1,000, is a good thing, if it ever happens, but such reduction would have absolutely no impact on either nation’s present realities. Elimination of a few war heads, or WVMDs, (weapons of very massive destruction), leaves entrenched and siloed enough destructive power to annihilate everything living on the face of the Earth a few times over. We shall hear over the coming months whether the Administration’s claims of these reductions ever actually come to pass. The odds are not terribly favorable to the President’s claims. Any part-time student of international affairs knows that Putin will not allow any such compliance under his watch, if the U.S. proceeds with its defense shield deployment in Poland and Czech.

Did America advance ground on obtaining any cooperation whatsoever on its objective of reigning-in Iran? Not a nod. Putin is very comfortable with selling Iran anything nuclear that it wishes to put its hands on. He has to sell Iranians something, anything, since they won’t buy his cars. Iran strategically presents the most critical foreign relations pillar to potential peace in the Middle East, and for now it remains an ace in Putin’s hand.

Countries expected by Putin of remaining within the “Russian sphere of influence,” such as Ukraine and Georgia, are making efforts to slip away from the bear’s grasp through entry into NATO. While the U.S. supports their inclusion, this stance is considered a direct threat to Russian hegemony in the region, further aggravated by the U.S. ballistic missile defense system intentions. Putin is not buying the sales pitch that this deployment is intended as a deterrent against Iran, no matter how the U.S. presents it. Putin just can’t take a joke. Of course it’s intended to protect against Russian aggression, however, in reality, well, it would augment the threat looming over Moscow, … just in case.

When Obama said to a business audience in Moscow, “Along the way, you gave us a pretty good deal on Alaska. Thank you,” was this intended to liven the discussion? Was it delivered to remind them Czar Alexander II, who received less than a penny per acre in gold for it, had shafted them? ... Under 21st Century Russian perception it is worse than a really bad deal. Is this a novel method of referencing a long history of trade? Russians never quite swallowed that pill, and Obama might have thought twice, or thrice, before raising this caustic historical Russian forget-me-not on Russian soil. Given Alaska’s current importance as a source of natural resources, it should have been evident that such recollection would rub some salt on an old wound. It should also have been obvious that it would be received as a backhand smack at Putin’s urgent quest for new productive oil and gas fields in Siberia, and more recently in contested areas of the Arctic. It would serve little here to imagine in much detail how the MSM might have treated Bush, had he made such a gaffe. Obama should understand that he is addressing a humiliated empire, desperate for a return to former glory.

Some of Putin’s highest priorities are oil and gas, their control, and their prices. He will support any measures that can sustain oil prices above $65 per barrel so that he can continue to fund his expensive power base. America's wishes are for something less than $40 per barrel, rendering Putin's ears deaf to any such discussion on this topic. Putin also needs to be seen as the nation’s strongman, and has been almost Hollywoodian in the shaping of that image. He must be seen as the defender of the motherland, and he enjoys approval by a comfortable majority of his countrymen. While Obama’s insecurity surfaces as arrogance, IMHO, Putin’s insecurity effuses as “My ego will take no prisoners, and my superiority doesn’t care what you think.” Any slights to his ego can only result in automatic and deep setbacks to pretense of cozy relations even though there is a long laundry list of expectations by each side.

The MSM has applauded Obama’s appeal to Russia’s youth that they should ignore past agenda (Putin), and take responsibility for a new 21st century agenda. Such communing with young Russians should help negotiations along astonishingly well with the country’s boss. Still, the MSM considers this strangeness, “a solid foundation,” for the future of the relationship. There is always something to be said for looking at a glass as being half full. There is also something to be said for realistic assessment, which provides a viable platform for effective strategic thinking. This U.S. representation in Moscow, IMHO, established absolutely no inroads that might provide launching pads for addressing the serious confrontational bargaining sessions that Putin’s long-established, aggressive and firm belligerence might budge for.

Obama apologists have excused him with commentary that he was simply stating historical fact. Such perception is baffling. Putin has been around a while, perhaps when visiting him, Obama should have taken more care to recall that his title is that of Prime Minister. No one in Russia does anything of import that his iron fist does not pre-approve. This too is historical fact, but perhaps Obama was tired, and when he mentioned Stalin, well, Stalin is part of Russian history after all, is he not?

The Moscow trip was not a favorable photo-op as it turned out, with Putin doing his best to appear nonplussed, and the meetings seemed to have accomplished nothing of substance. What was the point? The warheads will likely stay where they are, the missile shield has a doubtful future, and Putin will continue feeding Iran’s dreams of nuclear power. Putin understands America’s overwhelming military power. He cannot replicate it, however, he will remain an irritant, unwilling to appear acquiescent to any demands from America and the West. We can be assured that any backwards move Putin might relent to, he will extract maximum price for.


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