President Obama’s visit to Moscow has begun and a few observations are in order.
Russian audiences don’t care much about the details of nuclear-arms reductions but they are watching the body language of Obama and Medvedev to see who is the demandeur and who is the boss. So far, it’s not looking too good for the U.S. Obama slaps Medvedev on the back and looks at Medvedev while Medvedev looks away.
Obama and Medvedev signed a “preliminary agreement” on the reduction of nuclear stockpiles. Aside from the signing ceremony, it’s hard to see why we need a “preliminary agreement” instead of just an “agreement.” This is all the more true in light of the statement by Medvedev in an interview Sunday that a new agreement depends on the U.S. being willing to compromise on the proposed anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. One can only hope that this will not happen. A strategic arms-reduction agreement is already a gift to the Russians. It allows them to maintain parity with the U.S. in nuclear arms at little or no additional cost despite their aging arsenal and reinforces the misleading and potentially dangerous impression that Russia is still a superpower.
Obama is bending over backwards to give Medvedev the benefit of the doubt. For example, in his written answers to questions from the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, Obama called on Medvedev to follow through on his promise to “strengthen the rule of law in Russia.” Of course, no Russian takes that promise seriously. Sergei Kovalyev, at one time Russia’s human-rights ombudsman and an associate of the late Andrei Sakharov, summed up the situation as follows: “Russia’s courts today are exactly as controlled as they were under the Soviet Union.” The former Supreme Court judge Tamara Morshchakova put it differently. “Any official,” she said, “can dictate any decision in any case.”
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.