Monday, April 21, 2014

"...and the vegetable?"

The Wall Street Journal carried a front page article on April 21, 2014 entitled "US-Russia Relations Come Full Circle After Ukraine". The article attempts to review the changes in bilateral relations since June 2001 when President Bush gazed into Putin's eyes and was mesmerized. The whole "reset" (or "overload") debacle of Obama-Clinton is, of course, also described.  But, on the whole, it is a strange article for this prominent, politically conservative, US media organ.

The article is noteworthy for what it chooses to include, and for what it leaves out.

Bush is rightly portrayed as having been hypnotized by Putin in 2001, but the fact that his administration finally woke up is air-brushed out. And yet, it was precisely the hardening of the Bush Administration's policy toward Russia in 2008 that Obama ran against.

In the 2008 election season, the liberal intelligentsia was in full cry about how the "cold-warriors" in the Bush Administration didn't understand that the government in Russia was changing for the better and that the Administration's toughened stance toward Russia was interfering with this favorable evolution. The narrative was that the tide of history was working in Russia, slowly but surely, and this change was exemplified, and would be further propelled, by Medvedev who became President in May 2008.

The Democrats saw in Medvedev what they wanted to see. But Russians (of all stripes) saw Medvedev for what he was. In 2008 there was a famous joke that circulated in Russia. Putin and Medvedev go out to dinner at a well-known restaurant in the forest outskirts of Moscow that is renowned for its grilled meats. The waiter asks Putin what he will have. Putin answers "steak". The waiter follows up with Putin: "....and for the vegetable?" Putin responds: "He will have the steak also."

The facts concerning Russia's provocative long-term interference in Georgia's various break-away regions, and their direct military intervention in 2008 (shortly after Medvedev assumed office), when Georgia tried to reestablish control in part of its sovereign territory, were not consistent with the Medvedev-as-reformer narrative. Therefore, these facts were ignored, or explained away as some one-off aberration or special case.

However, instead of pointing out the complete bankruptcy of the the Obama Administration's Russia narrative of the last six years (in which Mrs. Clinton is inextricably involved), the WSJ seems to be allowing the paper to be used to float the new Russia narrative of some Democrats, particularly Mrs. Clinton. This narrative goes something like this: Medvedev was a reformer, so we were right to be nice to him and hope on him. Unfortunately, he couldn't really do as much as he wanted to, and, when Putin came back, things started to go bad. Nevertheless, "Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton felt they had to make what progress they could with the counterparts they had at the time in Russia."

The fact that this "progress" was really a series of cave-ins to Russian demands that fundamentally weakened the confidence that eastern European countries (such as Poland) had in the reliability of the US as a strategic partner, is also ignored in this article.

Anyone who has spent substantial time negotiating with Russians (such as yours truly) recognizes the "good cop/bad cop" gambit of Mr.Putin and Mr. Medvedev.

The WSJ may believe that helping some Democrats to scrabble towards the center is a worthy use of the paper's franchise, but an incorrect understanding of past events inevitably leads to bad policy decisions. This was true in 2008-2014 and will be true for this new flawed narrative concerning Russia.