Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.
FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
So what were the significant developments during Obama’s Russia visit?
Satter: The most significant result is that President Obama gave the Russians grounds for thinking that he may compromise on long standing American positions. For example, he promised to take into account the “peculiarities” of Russia’s relations with Georgia and Ukraine. And he promised to keep the Russian leaders informed about a U.S. analysis of the feasibility of the proposed anti-missile shield for Eastern Europe. What do these promises mean? Is Obama suggesting that he is not fully committed to U.S. positions on these issues? That’s the way the Russians are likely to interpret him. Russian commentators on channel 1, the official government television station, have already said that Obama is preparing to abandon the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe but wants to do so without losing face. At the same time, if these hints are followed by real concessions to the Russians, it would be a disaster.
FP: What rationale led Obama to make his promises? What does it say about the administration and its ability to frame coherent and wise foreign policy in general and Russia policy in particular?
Satter: Obama is trying to be conciliatory. He believes that by mollifying the Russian leaders he can win their cooperation. In this respect, his approach is not that different from that of Bush who also muted criticism of Russian human rights practices in exchange for assistance with Iran that never came. Bush, however, did not hint at compromise on fundamental matters of national security. At the root of all these attempts to conciliate the Russians is a failure to understand that the Russians will pocket these concessions, treat them as a tribute to their legitimacy and escalate their demands. Unfortunately, however, this is the type of miscalculation to which almost all U.S. administrations are prone.
FP: Why are almost all U.S. administrations prone to this type of miscalculation?
Satter: Not all U.S. administrations have fallen victim to this type of miscalculation. The Reagan administration, for example, was little inclined to try to conciliate the Russians which was the reason for its success. But generally American politicians lack a feel for Russia and they may surround themselves with advisers who overstate or misrepresent their knowledge of Russian realities.
FP: Why would it be a disaster if Obama follows through on making these concessions to the Russians?
Satter: If Obama compromises on NATO expansion or on the Eastern European missile shield, he will rightly be seen to have yielded on fundamental matters of principle in response to Russian pressure. This would undermine our alliances and leave Obama open to further pressure from Russia and from other countries.
FP: How important is NATO expansion and the Eastern European missile shield?
Satter: NATO expansion has stabilized the political situation in Eastern Europe and prevented conflicts that otherwise might have taken place. For example, in April, 2007, the Estonians relocated a Soviet war memorial that had been a source of tension between Estonians and ethnic Russians. The Russians reacted by launching a cyber attack against Estonian government computers. They were limited, however, in their response by the fact that Estonia was in NATO. In the case of Georgia, which was not in NATO and had been denied a membership action plan at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest, they felt free in August, 2008, to invade.
The missile shield is intended to protect against a possible attack from Iran. Whether or not it makes sense is, to a degree, a technical question. Obviously, the Bush administration was persuaded that it does make sense. Under any circumstances, however, it should not be eliminated in response to Russian pressure. This would give Russia a de facto veto over deployments on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact and effectively split the NATO alliance in two.
FP: The U.S. obviously needs Russia very badly, otherwise Obama would not be so passive and complimentary on certain levels. What does the U.S. need Russia for and did it get it or will it get it?
Satter: The U.S. needs Russian logistical help for the war in Afghanistan although it is worth noting that so far it has been making do without it. It could also use diplomatic help in dealing with Iran and, of course, it needs to prevent Russia from supplying Iran with the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. On the subject of logistical help for the war in Afghanistan, some progress was made. The Russians agreed to allow the U.S. to transport military supplies and personnel for Afghanistan across Russia. The problem with this “concession” (the Russians like to treat cooperative behavior as a concession) is that, understood as a favor to the U.S., it can be withdrawn the moment that the U.S. arouses Russia’s displeasure. It is not part of a structural change in relations and, in fact, could become an important source of pressure on the U.S. As for the S-300 deal, one would hope the Russians will show restraint not because of any U.S. “reset” but rather because supplying sophisticated missiles to Iran in the present situation could easily trigger a war in the Middle East with potentially grave consequences for Russia. The Russians’ decision, however, is unpredictable.
FP: Why is Russia supplying Iran with the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system? What mindset is needed to knowingly arm Islamic fanatics and terrorists with this capability?
Satter: They aren’t supplying them yet. Let’s hope that they won’t. As for the mindset, it’s the legacy of moral indifference left behind by 73 years of communism.
FP: When Obama said, "Interestingly, nothing Putin said contradicted anything that Medvedev has said.” This is extremely naïve to say, no? Did Obama also have any goals on how to deal with the Medvedev-Putin charade? Did Obama try to break Putin’s plans in some way by perhaps giving more attention to Medvedev, by spending the first day with him etc?
Satter: Yes, it was a very naïve statement. Putin and Medvedev may take slightly different positions on some issues in order to keep things interesting for Western political scientists but Medvedev is a protégé of Putin’s. He owes his entire career to Putin, including his presidency. When it comes to the core issues between Russia and the U.S., they are tweedle dum and tweedle dee.
FP: Obama met with Putin on the second day and had a serious talk. Putin brought up Ukraine etc. Who gained more, Putin or Obama?
Satter: If Obama impressed on Putin that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be respected, he may have gained something.
FP: There was no meeting of the minds on Georgia. Right? What might happen?
Satter: There was no meeting of the minds on Georgia which Russia is determined to dominate but that doesn’t mean there will be war. In the first war, the Russians benefited from the help of South Ossetian separatist militias who could shell Georgian settlements and provoke the Georgians. Now, South Ossetia has been separated from Georgia and declared (by Russia) to be, along with Abkhazia, an independent state. The Russians need a pretext for a second invasion. So far, they don’t have one.
FP: What happened in Obama’s meetings with opposition groups in Russia? Did he betray some principles?
Satter: Obama did not betray any principles in his meeting with opposition groups. He said that he values democracy above all because only democratic countries can be true advocates of peace and progress. He also said that he intends to have contact not only with the leaders of other countries but with members of civil society. At the same time, however, he made no public mention of any important instance of political repression. He could have raised the cases of murdered opposition figures Anna Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov. He could also have raised the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent who was murdered in London. This determination to speak in generalities will be interpreted by the Russians as a lack of resolution and will further untie their hands.
FP: What are your own thoughts on this Russian trip by Obama? How would you mark the President and how he conducted himself? And what needs to happen now?
Satter: Obama conducted himself in a friendly and dignified manner. He avoided some of the “My friend, Vladimir…” foolishness that characterized Bush’s encounters. He also generally stuck to U.S. positions on the missile shield and NATO expansion despite some unwise hints about the possibility of future compromise. His performance was not great. He was dealing with a culture he doesn’t know and with personalities whose motivations he doesn’t really fathom. But I’ve seen worse.
FP: What should a U.S. president know about Russian culture and about the motivations that he doesn’t fathom? Why doesn’t Obama know these things and why doesn’t he have advisers that tell him about them?
Satter: Every president should understand that Russia does not value the individual in the same way that he is valued in the West. In Russia, the individual human being is simply raw material for the realization of the regime’s political plans. Once a U.S. president understands this basic fact, everything else will make sense to him.
FP: David Satter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.