No need to pander to the Bear, Mr Obama

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JULIA PETTENGILL

The Cold War may be over but the paranoid rhetoric is not. It’s time for the US to recognise the Kremlin is crumbling.

 

US-Russian relations are having a bit of a déjà vu moment — at least in the PR stakes. Last week, President Obama’s inadvertently-recorded, obsequious assurance to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in his dealings with the Russian Federation after the election inspired Mitt Romney to jump in with his own misstep: referring to the Russian Federation as America’s “number one geopolitical foe”. In turn, Medvedev gleefully retorted that Romney should “check the time, because it’s 2012 now, not the mid-1970s”.

Funnily enough, Medvedev may be onto something. Obama’s clumsy appeasement and Romney’s Cold Warrior rhetoric gets the contemporary Russian government wrong in exactly the same way. Both treat the Russian Federation as if it were still a superpower, at a time when the weaknesses of Russia’s pseudo-democratic political structure have become increasingly apparent.

The pro-democracy protests which erupted in reaction to the mass fraud of last December’s parliamentary elections drew the largest crowds since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a significant development in a country as averse to political upheaval as Russia, and should not be underestimated.

Putin’s (inevitable) re-election in March may have dampened the momentum of this movement, but it would be a mistake to assume this means that Russian politics has returned to business-as-usual. Polls by independent polling company the Levada Centre demonstrate little popular appetite for dramatic political shifts or activism, but also reflect an increasing interest in political liberalisation, and an overwhelming lack of belief in the government’s intention or ability to deliver sincere change.

Taken together with the increasing assertiveness of Russia’s growing middle class and popular resentment of endemic, state-sponsored corruption, these developments pose a serious challenge to the longevity of the Putin-Medvedev tandem. Russia’s looming demographic crisis, collapsing pension scheme and disintegrating infrastructure hardly bolster the stability of the current ruling structure. Undoubtedly, Russia is a rising economic power and remains a power player internationally; but it is no longer the superpower Putin likes to pretend-and Obama and Romney seem to believe-it to be.

Obama, Romney, Medvedev and Putin all seem to be reading from different drafts of the same nostalgic script: for all Medvedev’s chiding of Romney, Cold War-era anti-American rhetoric has been a favoured tactic of the ruling tandem, particularly during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. While Obama pursues a pointless re-run of the detente era and Putin sets himself up as the new Brezhnev, Romney plays Ronald Reagan thirty years too late. Meanwhile, if the Russian people continue to assert themselves, history is poised to pass them all by.