The world has seen President Obama doing obeisance to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Japan. At a pinch, this self-abasement could be put down to some idea of good manners. To be asking favors of Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, is not open to any benign interpretation. In a previous exchange captured by a microphone switched on without his knowledge, the real Obama was revealed in his scorn for Bibi Netanyahu. In another such exchange he has just been caught saying that he wanted “space” for talks with Russia about the missile defenses against Iran, and to which the Russians object. “I understand,” said Medvedev, his interlocutor, adding that he would tell Vladimir Putin, the incoming president with whom his relationship is that of a feudal lord to a serf. What Medvedev has to have understood is that “space” is a euphemism for giving way. Obama spelled it out by saying that after the election he would have more “flexibility.” Instead of having a firm policy and sticking to it, he is deliberately putting himself into the position of a postulant, a subordinate inviting the Russians to set conditions in future important talks and showing himself willing to be satisfied with what they would grant him. Had Ronald Reagan taken this line in the 1980s Russia would still be Communist.
The Putin-Medvedev combination has played tricks with the constitution in order to stay in power, and is plainly throwing its weight about in what has to be called the Soviet manner. The Iran against which the United States would like to build a missile defense is the same Iran that Russia is helping to complete its nuclear program, and arming it — quite soon it will be able to do serious harm to the United States and its allies. No less disgusting, this Russia is arming and defending at every level the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. As if it wasn’t enough to be killing its own Muslims in the Caucasus, this Russia is providing the means to kill another country’s Muslims. Furthermore the arrival of a Russian aircraft carrier at the Syrian port of Tartus is an open menace that the United States had better not take any initiative to help — never mind arm — any Syrians who might be trying to save their lives from Bashar’s genocidal goons.
Putin is able to arrange mass rallies to support him, but someone living in Moscow tells me that most Russians, especially in the cities, know perfectly well that he has the soul of a secret policeman. The man has no trace of moral structure. He is thought to be the richest man in Europe. Vladimir the Bare-Chested presides over a kleptocracy at home and out in Europe. He orders the arrest of those he objects to, from democratic politicians to young women who sing what are said to be punk songs. Murder is part of daily life. Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer who tried to protect human rights, was beaten to death in his prison cell. A banker by the name of German Gorbuntsov fled to London this month, only to be gunned down at his front door in a typically murky tale of debts and killings.
The politics exposed by that unintentional microphone exchange may with luck come to nothing, but the explosion of shame is quite another matter.