Russian and reality

A recent New York Times article speaks of the âÄúoptimismâÄù Russian officials have for the potential to âÄúimprove ties with the United States under the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.âÄù Specifically, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed hope that âÄúthe new leadership of the United States will be more constructive, and will help us come to a mutually acceptable solution.âÄù This statement is revealing of many things, not least the enormous amount of political capital Obama has received since Nov. 4. To be sure, Russian officials must be relieved at Sen. John McCainâÄôs loss. McCainâÄôs criticisms of Moscow have been scathing, if not totally bizarre. âÄúRussia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB apparatchik-run government,âÄù he said in one debate. Naturally, his running mate offered little encouragement. Gov. Sarah Palin pulled few punches, saying that had Georgia been in NATO last August, we would now be at war with Russia âÄî and rightly so. While this may terrify the casual reader, we can take comfort in knowing that Palin probably didnâÄôt understand the gravity of her statement. Obama has made clear that his future policies will be very different that than the âÄúvisionâÄù of his media image. In reality, ObamaâÄôs advisers are as much entrenched in the Washington status quo as is the McCain team. Among the more lauded members, former National Security Adviser (under Bill Clinton) Anthony Lake is a strong supporter of NATO expansion and noted Cold Warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski (who held the same post as Lake under Carter) has recently stated that Putin âÄúis following a course that is horrifyingly similar to that taken by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s.âÄù What kind of action would one expect an Obama administration to take with that kind of rhetoric? There is no reason to believe that such senior advisers on the Obama team are not influential. The election, therefore, was more than anything else a choice between two hawks: one old and one new. Incidentally, from a Russian perspective, the world looks quite different. At a speech in 2007 at RussiaâÄôs Victory Day, Putin likened an unnamed powerâÄôs actions in Europe to German fascism, with obvious connotations: It is all the more important that we remember this today, because these threats are not becoming fewer but are only transforming and changing their appearance. These new threats, just as under the Third Reich, show the same contempt for human life and the same aspiration to establish an exclusive dictate over the world. To better understand this statement, we should take a look at U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. One of the major concerns of Moscow since 1990 has been the eastward expansion of NATO. As perhaps the most pragmatic Russian leader ever, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed that East Germany could become part of the western alliance âÄî assuming NATOâÄôs boundaries would not move beyond that toward Russia. In Secretary of State James BakerâÄôs own words, âÄúthere would be no extension of NATOâÄôs current jurisdiction eastward.âÄù Naturally, NATO did expand, by three countries in 1999, and by seven countries in 2004, three of which share a border with Russia. In keeping with this precedent, both Obama and McCain support Georgian membership in NATO, in spite of recent conflict. At this point, it is astounding that Putin has been so calm in his response. Even so, the absurdities continued. Last year, the United States proposed a missile defense system to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic to safeguard against, in President George W. BushâÄôs words, âÄúimminent threats from Iran or North Korea.âÄù One may wonder which Iranian threats Bush had in mind âÄî perhaps he got the United States and Iran confused âÄî and former âÄúAxis of EvilâÄù fiend North Korea seems barely capable of getting a missile off the ground, much less toward eastern Europe or the United States. Again, Russian restraint over the last decade has been astonishing, especially considering the historical implications of recent events âÄî a repeat of 1962, for one thing. But even reasonable leaders could easily perceive recent Washington exploits as acts of war. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it, âÄúthe arms race is starting again.âÄù If the United States continues on this dangerous path of aggression and arrogance, Lavrov may be all too correct. With Obama set to enter the White House, we may be tempted to believe that the conflicts, provocations and arrogance of the past will not be repeated. Yet if we bother to look past campaign slogans, a somewhat darker picture emerges, one that is very much ingrained in recent history. At least one thing seems clear: Russian patience is by no means infinite âÄî as the recent war in Georgia demonstrates âÄî and MoscowâÄôs new optimism is likely to be short-lived. Please send comments to [email protected]