Obama Surprises Russia
- By Vladimir Ryzhkov
- Jul. 10 2009 00:00
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The top foreign policy priorities for the Obama administration include the dangerous region spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan, strengthening the Iraqi state while gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from that country, Iran’s nuclear program, and the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coalition forces are currently waging a major offensive in southern Afghanistan. Given that situation, Moscow’s decision to allow U.S. aircraft to pass through Russian airspace is extremely valuable and marks an important victory for Obama. Russia gains from the arrangement as well because it is no less interested in stabilizing the huge powder keg on its southern flank.
The spread of nuclear weapons to an ever-
increasing number of countries is another major challenge facing the new U.S. administration. A decision was reached at the Moscow summit to prepare a new treaty by year’s end to replace the current START I agreement, and that would provide for almost halving the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. This will not only reduce the financial burden of maintaining redundant and useless nuclear weapons, but will set a good example in encouraging other countries to decrease their arsenals. In the case of arms reductions, U.S. and Russian interests coincide.
One sticking point that remains is missile defense. Washington and Moscow did not change their positions on the issue. Although they agreed to continue dialogue and exchange information on missile-related threats and issued a vaguely worded joint statement that acknowledged a link between offensive and defensive weapons, this hardly broke the stalemate. In his speech at the New Economic School, Obama placed a precondition for the United States to consider canceling its plans for deploying a missile defense system. He suggested that Moscow first help resolve the problem with Iran’s nuclear program, then if this is successful, Obama will rethink the plans. Clearly, missile defense will remain a stumbling block as the two sides work out the exact terms of the new strategic arms control agreement.
Against the backdrop of a possible new military conflict between Russia and Georgia this summer and with sharp barbs being traded between Moscow and Kiev, Obama clearly stated his position several times regarding the region that Moscow is accustomed to viewing as its “zone of vital interest.” During negotiations with Medvedev, in his speech at the New Economic School and at meetings with the Russian opposition, Obama emphasized his firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of those nations. He also declared that governments with the backing of the people have the right to choose for themselves whether they want to join any particular bloc or alliance. The U.S. president did not rule out the possibility of continued NATO expansion, saying only that the process would be “long and difficult.”
Obama amazed Moscow with his agenda during the second day of his visit: three public speeches to large audiences as well as meetings with rights advocates, businesspeople, the political opposition, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and even Patriarch Kirill. Thousands of people had the opportunity to see and hear the young U.S. president in person. Kremlin television was thrown into a state of confusion. Obama’s open and friendly style stood in stark contrast to the demonized image of the United States that Kremlin propaganda has promulgated for many years. Obama’s visit made a very strong impact on Russia, the results of which will last a very long time. It will be difficult for the ruling elite to deny the fact that the world had changed and that the United States had also changed. America has become more dynamic, wiser and more attractive, and the old, worn-out anti-U.S. propaganda that the Kremlin has relied on for the last eight years will no longer work.
Obama introduced a completely new political style. He did not put his arm around the shoulder of his “friend Dima” or his “friend Volodya,” nor did he “look into their souls.” Obama was very professional and held firmly to his position, and he walked away a winner. It appears that the Kremlin elite were caught off guard. They clearly underestimated Obama and were not prepared to do business with such a smart and well-prepared partner.
No U.S. president has ever spent so much time meeting with Russian civil society as Obama did. At his meeting with members of the Russian opposition, at which I was present, Obama stated directly that he intends to have contact with not only the leaders of other countries, but with members of society as well. In his speech at the New Economic School, Obama stressed that the time when a handful of state leaders would decide the fate of the world had passed. At our meeting, Obama said he would actively support broader contacts between nongovernmental organizations. Obama also explained that he values democracy above all else because only democratic countries can be true advocates of peace and progress. It is hard to imagine a time when Russia ever received more open support for democracy, human rights and civil society than it did on Obama’s second day in Moscow.
At the end of our meeting with Obama, where we discussed the biased judicial system and in particular the highly politicized convictions of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev. We discussed the problems of political prisoners, freedom of speech, the murder of opposition members and journalists, the censuring of the mass media and repressive measures against opposition parties.
Obama has been in office for only six months, but the world has already started to change. The new U.S. president represents a good balance between national interests and personal values. He is able to conduct a pragmatic dialogue with the ruling authorities while simultaneously supporting civil society and the opposition. His leadership style is businesslike and friendly. Obama is able to reach out to millions of people all over the world, and he symbolizes the new, improved image of the United States. In short, Obama presents a new form of politics — the politics of change. As a result, the entire world is changing as well.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.