This week President Dmitry Medvedev received perhaps the warmest welcome in recent memory of a Russian head of state during his visit to California and Washington DC . This warmth, fraternity, and sudden seemingly naïve trust placed into the relationship on behalf of President Barack Obama served a clear domestic political purpose: the administration is parading Medvedev as their number one foreign policy success story. That perception, of course, depends on whom you are talking to.
The Obama Administration has been openly effusive about the visit. In the classic tradition of U.S.-Russia diplomacy, Barack invited Dmitry out for some conspicuously blue-collar burgers on Thursday, where they talked about chicken exports and their experiences updating Twitter accounts (which Obama described as "Twitters").
"You know, sometimes it's odd when you're sitting in historic meetings with your Russian counterpart to spend time talking about chicken," Obama said to the Associated Press. "We may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long."
Medvedev has been happy to play the necessary role to help Americans forget about the BP oil spill and the ugly firing of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, among other shortcomings of leadership. His words were pristine, pitch perfect, and perfectly hollow, promising Russia's commitment to a predictable and lawful investment environment, improvements to the current political system, and his unending battle to curb corruption. It would be hard to disagree with the many positive things that Medvedev said during the visit, and it would be even harder to locate any evidence to back up them up.
The photo op of Obama and Medvedev chowing down on burgers was eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush's invitation of Vladimir Putin to the Bush family home at Kennebunkport, Maine in 2007 (the first ever for a foreign head of state) for a lobster-and-hot-dogs summit. At the time, Bush remarked, "One thing I've found about Vladimir Putin is that he is consistent, transparent, honest, and is an easy man to discuss our opportunities and our problems with."
In fact, there is not much revolutionary or unprecedented about these swings back and forth in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Long-time Russia watcher Steve LeVine has pondered whether the administration is suffering "a case of amnesia" in all their "high-fiving" to celebrate the fruits of the reset: "such intimate meetings between American businessmen and Russian leaders go back at least as far as the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev met with oil executives regularly, including from Chevron, for instance, as they sought to buy rights to the Tengiz oilfield."
The truth is that almost nothing in Russia has changed outside of symbolic gestures. Democratic freedoms are still on total lock down, while a protest movement seeking only to protect their minimal constitutional rights is being crushed with a surplus of brutality. Energy imperialism has advanced unencumbered, most notably with discounted gas in exchange for an extended lease on a Black Sea naval base in Ukraine, a partially deserved gas supply cut to Belarus, interference in South European pipeline alternatives, and even a careful attempt to monopolize the fuel supply to the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Political prisoners are still on trial, businessmen are imprisoned and in some cases killed while those responsible remain unpunished, while some of the worst criminals are swiftly pardoned and let back onto the streets. The signing of a replacement of the START treaty is being described as a huge and unnecessary concession by the Americans with out any clear goal. Even the most respected Russia experts in the administration are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation on the current situation in Georgia, where Russia remains in open violation of a ceasefire agreement, occupying territories which no real governments recognize as independent.
No one would dispute that a "reset" has not occurred - there is obviously a change in the relationship, and it is Washington that has shifted toward accommodation. The key bragging point on behalf of the Obama administration is that they have achieved cooperation and consensus with Moscow on Iran - though exactly what this consists of remains a mystery. it's important to note that the talks on Iran did not arise out of a change of heart in the Kremlin, but rather a more subtle form of bribery to the siloviki, when Washington removed several key revenue vehicles from a sanctions blacklist, such as arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Tula Instrument Design Bureau, and several other companies closely linked to Putin's inner circle.
Kurt Volcker, a former ambassador to NATO, saw right through this ruse in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal: "I just don't think the Russians see things that way. (...) They will pocket whatever gain they get on one issue--thinking that it was long-deserved--and then sensing the gains, press for even more."
The reasons behind the Obama-Medvedev burger summit have something to do with the fact that both leaders are experiencing a mutually decreasing ability to manage international outcomes, from Kyrgyzstan to Iran to China. On the Russian side, there is the pain of a 41% drop in foreign direct investment last year, and an economic contraction of almost 8%, leading to the more "business friendly" doctrine of foreign relations (as explained in the leaked Newsweek document). Back in Washington, for those drinking the Kool-Aid, there appears to be a sincere belief that relations have turned a corner, that the Russians mean what they say when they make these promises, and that this area of foreign policy is one of the government's biggest success stories.
Having a camera down on the ocean floor to capture the sickening eruption of oil certainly produced a sense of urgency in the U.S. president. Perhaps we should consider putting some streaming cameras all over Russia as well, to watch the show trials, beaten protesters, murdered journalists, and disappeared North Caucasians, which may at least bring a sense of balance to all the self-congratulation in Washington this week.
Somebody in this government needs to wake up and smell the coffee, and take note that it is not Russia nor the relationship that has been reset, but rather Obama himself. If all the high-fiving continues, it is likely to be very short-lived, and looked back upon with embarrassment.