Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

Reset 2.0

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's tough and blunt comments about Russia in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal appear to have surprised more than a few people in Moscow and Washington.

They shouldn't have. Far from coming out of the blue, being out of step, or off message as some observers have suggested, Biden's remarks actually fit into a pattern that has emerged over the past month as the White House tweaks its Russia policy in response to the Kremlin's recent behavior.

Call it a reset of the reset.

Washington's rhetoric toward Moscow has taken a considerably sharper turn since mid-June when Moscow vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, that would have extended the UN mandate in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region. The vote was 10-1 in favor of extending the mandate, with Russia standing alone and isolated.

Shortly after that veto, President Barack Obama sparked a mini-controversy on the eve of his visit to Moscow when, in an interview with the Associated Press, he praised his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev -- but added that Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has "one foot in the old ways of doing business."

As I wrote at the time, Obama appeared to be trying to drive a wedge through the Russian elite, which is deeply divided between factions drawing diametrically opposed lessons from the mushrooming economic crisis. The technocrats surrounding Medvedev favor economic reform, decentralization, and liberalization. The "siloviki" close to Putin want to dig in their heels and preserve the status quo.

Now let's look at Biden's controversial comments to the Wall Street Journal's Peter Spiegel, made after his four-day visit to Kyiv and Tbilisi, in which he suggests that Russia's weakening economy will cause it to eventually become more pliant in foreign affairs.

Biden said "Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions" and that Washington "vastly" underestimates its hand vis-à-vis the Kremlin:

The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

Biden went on to say that the Russian leaders "aren't absolute average-intellect ideologues who are clinging to something nobody believes in. They're pretty pragmatic in the end."

Biden's remarks, seen in their proper context, seem to be a continuation of the message Obama sent before his departure for Moscow. In each case, the administration was appealing to the relatively progressive part of the Moscow elite (and in the Russian elite, progressive is always a very relative term)  and sending a warning to the more retrograde elements.

Moreover, Biden was characteristically blunt in his remarks about Russia during his entire visit Ukraine and Georgia last week. He reiterated U.S. support for both country's NATO bids, said Washington would never recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and called on Russia to honor last August's ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.

But Reset 2.0 goes beyond mere rhetoric.

Senior Georgian officials have told RFE/RL that behind the scenes in Moscow, Obama warned Medvedev and Putin in no uncertain terms against starting a new war with Georgia.

The officials said Tbilisi was informed by U.S. officials that Obama told Russia's leaders that any attack against Georgia would have "grave consequences" and that Washington "would not stand aside" in such a conflict as it did during last year's war.

A White House spokesperson declined comment on the claim (but did not deny it), saying only "we don't discuss private conversations."

Administration officials also say that Washington would consider deploying U.S. monitors to join a European Union mission observing the de facto boundaries with Abkhazia and South Ossetia if the EU agrees to this. Georgia has been pressing hard for U.S. monitors, arguing correctly that their presence on the border would have an added deterrent effect against any fresh Russian incursion.

So Washington is ratcheting up the pressure on Moscow in words and in deeds, even as it talks about a new era of cooperation. Will it work?

In a compelling and well-argued piece in Stratfor.com, George Friedman writes that "the Russians certainly now understand what it means to hit the reset button Obama has referred to: The reset is back to the 1980s and 1990s" when a weak economy limited Moscow's foreign policy options.

Biden’s visit and interview show the Obama administration is maintaining the U.S. stance on Russia that has been in place since the Reagan years. Reagan saw the economy as Russia’s basic weakness. He felt that the greater the pressure on the Russian economy, the more forthcoming the Russians would be on geopolitical matters. The more concessions they made on geopolitical matters, the weaker their hold on Eastern Europe.

In today's context, Eastern Europe means Georgia and Ukraine.

But Friedman warns that the 1980s and 1990s, when Moscow's economic woes led to geopolitical weakness, were actually an exception. Historically, Russia has been able to "decouple" its economy, which has been weak for most of its history, from its military capabilities. It has done so by squeezing its population economically, depriving it is basic comforts to divert resources to the military, and by brutally oppressing political dissent, and Friedman argues that it could do so again:

In the long run, the solution [for Russia] is not improving the economy — that would be difficult, if not outright impossible, for a country as large and lightly populated as Russia. Rather, the solution is accepting that Russia’s economic weakness is endemic and creating a regime that allows Russia to be a great power in spite of that. Such a regime is the one that can create military power in the face of broad poverty, something we will call the 'Chekist state.' This state uses its security apparatus, now known as the FSB, to control the public through repression, freeing the state to allocate resources to the military as needed. In other words, this is Putin coming full circle to his KGB roots.

Friedman's argument is solid. But I think that what worked in the past may be quite problematic for Russia to pull off today.

For the past decade, Russians have willingly sacrificed political rights in exchange for rising living standards -- that has been Putin's vaunted social contract, his grand bargain. And as a result, Russians now expect rising prosperity.

Today's Russians are not the Russians of the 1930s or even the 1970s. Now that a wide section of the population has experienced a decade of growth, tt is far from certain that they would accept economic deprivation together with political repression anymore -- at least without serious and destabilizing social unrest.  And if the Kremlin elite understands this, then they also understand that the only alternative is reform and accommodation with the West.

This is apparently what the administration is counting on.

Moscow has shown no signs of mellowing just yet. In fact, as soon as Obama left Russia, Medvedev made a high-profile trip to South Ossetia. And as Biden was meeting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week, the Russian foreign ministry warned that Moscow would take measures to prevent Tbilisi from rearming.

But as usual, Obama is playing long-ball -- setting the stage now for political benefits down the road. As one U.S. official put it, "there is not a quarterly bottom line here. This is a process."

And a very high-stakes process at that.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: biden,economy,Georgia,Vladimir Putin,medvedev,obama,Russia

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Comments page of 2
by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
July 29, 2009 01:08
My reading of the tea leaves has the Russians moving into Georgia to remove the Saakashvili government before the end of August 09. This move may have less to do with geo-strategic/oil concerns as with wounded Russian pride.

by: Adrian from: New Zealand
July 29, 2009 10:06
If they did, Ray, it would be a classic case of wounded pride trumping strategic self-interest. Russia would become utterly isolated, loathed by its neighbours, and even more starved of foreign capital. The blowback would doubtless lengthen the recession and prompt Europe to reconsider its energy and security policies. Which, of course, doesn't mean that it won't happen - it will just underscore and confirm the lunatic nationalism of the Putin era...

by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
July 29, 2009 17:47
Adrian, Hi and thanks for your comment. My US brain agrees with you and perhaps I've over-studied Dostoevsky or listened too closely to the not-so subtle threats of Russia's rep to NATO (Rogozin) and their For Min (Lavrov), but I sense that certain Russian leaders are willing to place a big bet (idtu na risk/v bank) just to demonstrate their strength (small and irrational as it may be). Hope I'm wrong.

by: Zviad Kavteli from: Tbilisi, Georgia / Ann Arbor, MI
July 30, 2009 01:46
Russia is not afraid of being 'isolated' or 'loathed'. They want to be feared, at least by neighbors. By removing the democratically elected Georgian government they would achieve what they want - being feared. <br />I think and hope the Russian elite will not forcibly remove the Georgian government, because maintaining a new puppet government in Georgia would require a long-term occupation, which may not be sustainable for Russia, if US does something about it. The Russian elite is afraid of the following:<br />1. US providing the Georgian resistence forces advanced and portable weapons, such as Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM). If Georgians have those weapons, continued Russian occupation of Georgia will turn into a nightmare and will result into humiliating and complete deoccupation of entire Georgia. <br />2. Economic and political sanctions against Russia. Freezing Russian assets in Europe and USA. Boycotting 2014 Sochi Olympic games. <br />3. Easy flow of weapons and money across Georgian-Russian border. With overstretched Russian troops, Russia will have hard time preventing Islamic insurgents from obtaining arms and money . <br />4. Political and social instability within Russia proper. Wars cost money. Kremlin has much less money now than 1 year ago. With insurgency wars in both North Caucasus and South Caucasus (Georgia), ethnic Russian population will get even more poor very soon and they might turn their anger against Kremlin. After all, it was the unsustainable Russian military adventure of WWI that turned the Russian army and impoverished population against Czar Nikolay II.

by: John
July 30, 2009 02:51
Friedman theories just make me laugh.<br />...KGB, the chekist state. I am tired to listen to those so-called experts. <br />Radio Libery tell us about liberty in Israel.

by: Fried Egg
July 30, 2009 05:47
Russia growls at its neighbors after Obama is out of sight - much like a dog does when its owner isn't around. But, much like the dog - Russia will pay the price when it attacks someone. They'll be put down if they cannot be properly trained. So far, threats and a rolled-up newspaper have shown positive results.

by: Alexey from: Moscow
July 30, 2009 11:49
Misters Yankees! What nonsense do you speak! &quot;To isolate Russia!&quot;. You already tried to make it at last year. And you have achieved nothing, except the time termination of the political cooperation like NATO-Russia. Who will lose from this isolation - the West or Russia? It's a very disputable queation.<br /><br />We have achieved all own purposes last year. Georgia was destroyed and can forget about NATO, Ossetia and Abkhazia in safety, and West can only hisses and writes such articles.

by: Nikolas Gvosdev from: Naval War College
July 30, 2009 15:33
My read of this interview is that VP Biden is laying the groundwork for being able to disassociate the Obama administration from the rhetoric of &quot;the reset&quot; of earlier this year. This is a way of being able to maneuver around the perception that the Obama team &quot;failed&quot; vis-a-vis improving relations with Russia by making the argument that the fault lies with Moscow, not Washington.

by: Yelena from: Russia
August 01, 2009 01:36
When I read comments like these I become calm, easy and self-confident. That common arrogance and narrow-mindedness which is widly spread these days among not only most of the western nations but also their leadership makes me feel safe. Because, and here mark my words, these traits will be the first reasons to bring you to your downfall. Not Russia, not some crappy terrorists or smth else, but you and only you, yourselves, and your groundless superiority complex to the rest of the world, that that will destroy you. And if you don't wanna see it...well, so let it be. Amin.

by: George from: Idaho
August 02, 2009 08:45
I agree that Biden's comments seem to fit well into the strategic pattern Omaba administration has developed. From the very first time I heard about &quot;the reset&quot;, I've been thinking this was an offer Obama HAD to make after the disastrous policies of Bush, but in reality Americans have been preparing for unavoidable - Russia is not going to suddenly start behaving just because they are offered friendship. Soon enough it became obvious sweet talk was not working (Russia still has not withdrawn to pre-Aug08-war positions they agreed to do according to Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement) and the White House started to play their cards with clean consciousness. I see US gradually applying pressure and getting Russia to settle down. However, there are unpredictable factors remaining - first and most it's the lunatic Saakashvili, who is more than capable of provoking another armed conflict as long as he thinks it might buy his regime another few months in power.
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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or