None of the three panelists was optimistic about Obama’s ability to effect a significant change in Russian-U.S. relations, primarily because of the Russian leadership’s reliance on painting America as an enemy in order to solidify its power.
However, they suggested Obama could avoid propagating this view among Russian citizens by carefully tailoring his public speeches and understanding -- in the words of panelist David Satter -- that “what he’s witnessing in Moscow is not a meeting of government officials, [it] is an orchestrated and choreographed play put on for his benefit.”
Speaking at the event were Satter, a former Moscow correspondent for the "Financial Times" and author of books about the decline of the Soviet Union and the rise of the current Russian government; Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political analyst who has written books on Vladimir Putin’s presidency; and David Kramer, a German Marshall Fund fellow and former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
Piontkovsky compared Obama’s upcoming visit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin to the 1961 meetings between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He said both leaders in 1961 left the meetings with mistaken perceptions of the other that contributed to the crisis the following year. In this visit, Obama must be careful that his words and actions don’t further enable a Russian propaganda machine that successfully portrays the United States as a great enemy responsible for terrorism in the North Caucasus region.
Obama’s recent foreign speeches, including his address in Cairo earlier this month, sought to help improve global perceptions of the United States in part by apologizing for past U.S. actions.
But Piontkovsky said such an approach “will be disastrous in Moscow.” Although he said he doesn’t know what Obama might try to apologize for, any expression of guilt for the current state of U.S.-Russian relations will be taken as a sign of weakness and a validation of Kremlin-fueled, anti-American propaganda.
Kramer outlined the policy issues likely to come up during next month’s visit, which begins July 6, but he was skeptical that agreements could be reached on any of them.
“Russia does not share our interests and threat assessments, to say nothing of our values,” he said. The threat of a nuclear Iran is perceived differently by the two countries, the United States. is unlikely to promote new security agreements when Russia already is in violation of existing ones, and Russia is more interested in driving the U.S. military out of its base in Kyrgyzstan than in aiding efforts in Afghanistan.
Above all, Kramer said, “Russian leaders simply may not be interested in improving relations with the U.S.” The American enemy is too useful a tool to the current Kremlin leadership to allow a “resetting” of U.S.-Russian relations. “I hope [Obama] goes with his expectations fully in check,” he said.
Satter shared anecdotes from his visits to Moscow, including the story of a former Russian official fired for corruption who recently was tapped by Medvedev to lead the government’s anti-corruption efforts.
“The point of the ‘reset’ between U.S. and Russian relations is to foster dialogue,” Satter said. “That’s only possible when people operate in the same understanding of reality.”
Satter predicted any attempt by Obama to reach the Russian people over the heads of their leaders through public speeches would have little effect due to tight government controls on Russian media. He described the visit as an important psychological test for Obama. “We can only wish him well and hope he’s been advised of the situation he’s facing,” he said.
-- Laura Thompson