An American President lands in Moscow today to negotiate an arms control treaty. Befitting that retro theme, thousands of Russian troops are in the midst of the biggest war games in the south Caucasus since the end of the Cold War, menacing the small, independent nation of Georgia.
President Obama’s two days in Moscow are supposed to foster, in an adviser’s words, “a more substantive relationship with Russia” — the substance being Iran’s atomic ambitions, the war in Afghanistan and a replacement for the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. You know, the stuff of a quasi-superpower partnership. But Russia hardly looks super, or inclined to forge a partnership, except on its own terms.
Instead, Supreme Leader Vladimir Putin wants to settle old scores and establish what he calls “a zone of privileged interest.” He must appreciate Mr. Obama’s eagerness to change the subject from Russian belligerence to nuclear weapons, which plays up Russia’s remaining claim to superpower status. How that serves America’s interests isn’t clear.
As in the weeks before Russia invaded Georgia in August, tensions are again on the rise. At least 8,500 Russian troops are involved in exercises around Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway Georgian regions recognized as independent solely by Russia and Nicaragua. Last month, Moscow vetoed the renewal of U.N. and European observer missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both had been there since the early 1990s. President Mikheil Saakashvili, a young Columbia-trained lawyer who turned Georgia westward, remains an irritant for Russia. A pro-Kremlin regime in Georgia would give Moscow control over the energy routes through the Caucasus and influence independent-minded Azerbaijan and Armenia.
While Russia has failed even to comply with the terms of the truce, the U.S. and its allies are acting as if that war never happened. At this summit, Mr. Obama is to announce the restoration of bilateral military relations with Russia suspended by the Bush Administration. The NATO-Russian Council is also back in business. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has put on hold plans by Poland and the Czech Republic to allow the U.S. to deploy American missile defenses on their soil. In a letter to Kremlin frontman Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year, Mr. Obama floated the idea of trashing those deals if Russia can prod Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
U.S. officials say they’ve ruled out quid pro quos on missile defense or Ukraine and Georgia’s future. Nonetheless, Russian officials are all too happy to consider grand bargains. All start with America abandoning any future NATO expansion. In pre-summit interviews, Mr. Obama also skipped over such touchy Kremlin subjects as human rights and its designs on neighboring states. “The main thing that I want to communicate to the Russian leadership and the Russian people is America’s respect for Russia,” he told Russian media, noting that “it remains one of the most powerful countries in the world.” Someone keeps telling American Presidents to stroke the bear’s fragile ego above all else. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also pursued this strategy, to little good effect.
Here’s an idea. Set aside the dime-store national psychoanalysis and return to first American principles and interests. This summit rests on a fiction: That Russia is an equal power to the U.S. that can offer something concrete in return for American indulgence. Some Russians see through the pretense. “Let’s be frank: There’s not a single serious global issue where the United States is dependent on Russia today,” the pro-Kremlin political analyst, Gleb Pavlovsky, wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week. Russia’s decision to let the U.S. resupply its Afghan troops over Russian airspace is a goodwill gesture, but it was only offered after Russia failed to stop resupply via Kyrgyzstan.
From the moment Communism collapsed, America’s overriding national interest in Europe and Eurasia has been to extend prosperity and freedom. In short, to offer formerly captive nations a choice to join the West. This can be done in part through membership in NATO, the EU or the World Trade Organization. The “West” is an idea as well as a place, a voluntary and open association. Successive U.S. Presidents, when push came to shove, have defended the right to make this choice freely and ignored Russian caterwauls.
The choice to join the free world is open to Russia, too. Mr. Putin is the one who has taken that option off the table — most recently by pulling Russia’s application to join the WTO. In the Putin decade, nationalism, corruption and cronyism have flourished while Russia has missed another chance to modernize. That’s not America’s fault.
Any U.S. administration will have plenty of business to carry out with Russia. But an American President in Moscow needs to keep his eyes on the bigger prize in Russia and the region. And that prize is an expansion of freedom, not a new START treaty.