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Warmer ties with US a tough sell in Russia

Obama trip comes amid old mind-set

By Megan K. Stack
Los Angeles Times / July 5, 2009
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MOSCOW - When President Obama visits Russia this week, he will face the task of trying to reset relations with a government that has built its power base and defined itself by its anti-American, neo-Cold War stance.

It is an opportune moment for America to warm a frosty relationship. Russia could help on some of the United States’ most intransigent foreign policy troubles, including Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. But in Russia, there is scant evidence of a desire for a fresh start.

Despite a reshuffle of power that installed Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin as prime minister and his career underling, Dmitry Medvedev, in the presidency, the Kremlin’s policies remain unchanged - including its habit of drumming up anti-American sentiment to bolster political power at home.

Shortly after it warmly welcomed Obama to the White House, the Kremlin lavished a $2 billion loan on the government of Kyrgyzstan, which in turn evicted the US military from a base considered strategically important to the war in Afghanistan. Orchestrated in Moscow, the power play cost the United States months of embarrassment and a rent increase of more than $40 million.

Russia only risks destabilization on its borders if the war in Afghanistan deteriorates. But analysts said Russia still feels a compulsion to interfere with US goals. Anti-Americanism, some say, has deep roots in Russia’s view of itself, its insecurities, and aspirations to again become a superpower.

“Domestic politics is very much grounded on opposition to the West,’’ said Denis Volkov, a researcher at Moscow’s Levada Center, who has conducted polls on Russian attitudes toward the United States. “It’s very often used as an excuse, as a pillar of the popularity of Russian leaders and as the proof of the rebirth of Russian power.’’

In Russia, cozy ties with the West are associated with the impotence, humiliation, and corruption of the 1990s. Hostility, on the other hand, is considered a hallmark of strength, smacking of the Soviet empire and Putin’s oil-rich ride in the presidency.

“There’s no future in Russia for pro-American policy,’’ said Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Asia program at the Institute of World Security in Washington. “You can build your whole career based on anti-American policy - build a political career, become a famous journalist or public figure. But if you promote the idea of friendship with America, you’ll be denounced immediately.’’

The Cold War is a faded relic in American memory. Now there are Iran and North Korea to worry about; a few years ago, there was Saddam Hussein. And so it is perhaps easy to forget that, in Russia, the Cold War remains a poignant and powerful idea.

If there is no hostility with the United States, the thinking runs, it can only mean that Russia is no longer important enough to merit it. And that is unpalatable to Russia’s political elite.

When Russian tanks and warplanes crossed the border last summer to battle Georgian troops in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Russian media ascribed the war to US missteps - the backing of Georgia’s anti-Russia president in what Russia regarded as its rightful sphere of influence.

Russian leaders believed the United States had set the stage for the war when it recognized the independence of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia. Traditionally protective of Serbia’s interests, Russia was infuriated by the move and warned that it would set a precedent for other rebel republics to secede.

“We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War,’’ Medvedev said last summer.

The Russian president’s rhetoric has since softened. And in the months since Vice President Joe Biden first called for the two countries to “push the reset button,’’ it has become clear that the Obama administration’s hopes are pinned on Medvedev.

Last week, Obama accused Putin of keeping “one foot in the old ways’’ of the Cold War. But in Russia, the two are regarded as a tandem - with Putin, not Medvedev, the senior member.

With the advent of the Obama administration, some in the Kremlin have become nervous about the prospect of eased relations, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the New Eurasia think tank in Moscow.

“They are concerned that their attempts to sustain this fortress mentality in Russia will be deflated,’’ he said.