In Putin’s Circle, Obama Is Gorbachev

In private conversations with visiting U.S. business leaders, Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin have recently referred to President Barack Obama as “your Gorbachev.” And they haven’t meant it positively.

For the West, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the visionary leader who tackled the economic and political failings of the Soviet Union’s authoritarian system, with Perestroika and then Glasnost, introducing an era that ended Communist oppression, brought down the Berlin Wall, ended the Cold War and expanded Europe’s community of democracies.

For President Putin, who returned to the Kremlin amid violent demonstrations last May, Gorbachev’s legacy was national humiliation and Soviet collapse, which the Russian leader has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” When the members of his inner circle compare Obama to Gorbachev, they betray a conviction that the U.S. is in a state of decline under a leader who is accelerating that trajectory through his efforts at reform.

The Obama-Gorbachev comparison is easily dismissed. Even before the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, it suffered from decades of internal rot and never enjoyed America’s regenerating, democratic dynamism. What Obama and Gorbachev have in common is that both are reform-minded lawyers, but little connects them beyond that thin reed.

What’s more significant about the Gorbachev-Obama comparison is what it reveals about Putin’s thinking.

Leaders’ intentions can be best judged by their first days in office. Even measured against two stints as prime minister (1999-2000 and 2008-2012) and another two terms as president (2000-2008), Putin’s first actions upon returning to the Kremlin in May have alarmed Western diplomats. He launched a harsh crackdown on domestic opposition, imposed strict Internet controls (of the sort employed by the Chinese and Iranians), supported and armed  Syria’s increasingly murderous regime and now presides over a hot summer of anti-American hostility. The latter has included accusations of U.S. interference in Russian elections, attacks on President Obama’s missile defense plans and charges that McDonald’s food imperils the Russian public.

Putin intentionally snubbed Obama through his decision not to attend the U.S.-hosted May G8 and NATO Summits. Instead, the following month he made his first state visit to China since returning to the presidency. There the Russians and Chinese joined hands on Syria and signed a number of economic and security agreements. The recent escalation of Chinese and Russian claims on islands disputed with Japan followed those discussions.

Putin’s crowd sees little downside in frustrating Obama administration policies and insufficient upside for a more cooperative relationship – with the exception of issues where Putin sees powerful self-interest, such as support for U.S. disengagement and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One U.S. senior official who deals with Russian issues believes accommodating Putin will be nearly impossible for three reasons: his deep, irreconcilable hostility toward the U.S., his determination to regain lost ground in his region, his view that the Syrian confrontation is also a proxy war between Moscow and the West, and the domestic political benefits that come with stoking nationalism at a time when domestic opposition and growing economic uncertainties pose unprecedented threats to his rule.

Finally, Putin’s people believe Obama is so distracted by his own election campaign and U.S. fiscal and political dysfunction that they can act with impunity.

As Andrew Weiss recently wrote in Foreign Policy:

The most important yet overlooked aspect of the current situation … may be the cynicism and casual indifference that Putin has displayed toward the U.S.-Russian relationship in the face of his much bigger problems at home … He also must contend with the ripple effects of the euro zone drama and the global economic slowdown…”

The image of a compliant U.S. president before a rising Putin has been a matter of growing discussion in Russia since an open microphone picked up what had been meant to be a private exchange between Obama and then-outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev at a nuclear disarmament summit in Seoul last March.

Obama said, apparently referring to Russian objections to U.S. missile defense plans: “This is my last election … After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Medvedev responded sympathetically, “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

In the days that followed in Russia, the phrase “I will transmit this to Vladimir” became such a national joke that a Cyrillic twitter hash tag #владимиру (#ToVladimir) was in the top 10 most popular list.

In the mudslinging madness of the U.S. presidential campaign, the contenders will do more to score points over the Russian issue than reflect on its growing importance. Mitt Romney will condemn the failure of Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, and Obama will attack Romney’s reckless reference to Russia as “America’s No. 1 Geopolitical foe.”

More useful would be a discussion about what’s driving Putin and what sort of response that may require.

Putin has come to regard the U.S. with a mixture of dread and disdain.

As he sees it, the United States engineered the fall of the Soviet Union and then, lacking its superpower opponent, encouraged East European revolutions and then the removal of Russian allies and clients like Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Seen through this prism, it is easy to understand Putin’s refusal to align with international opposition to Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and Russia’s continued military assistance. As he sees it, Russia’s support for action against Libya inadvertently gave the international community license to remove authoritarian leaders who are, like himself, in conflict with their population.

Although the Obama-Gorbachev link is strained, perhaps there is a better John F. Kennedy-Obama comparison that fits the moment. Today’s Russia isn’t the global adversary or threat that the Soviet Union was, but history has shown that misperceptions of American leaders can spawn dangerous miscalculations of U.S. resolve.

As I argued in my recent book – Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth – it was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy’s weakness, gained through the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961, that prompted him to risk putting nuclear weapons in Cuba a year later.

The result could have been nuclear war.

Although these seem like less perilous times, whoever leads the United States should not underestimate Putin’s disruptive potential.

The only reasonable U.S. course is to redouble efforts, through multiple channels, at establishing a positive agenda for a cooperative relationship, something State Department special envoy Ellen Tauscher has called “mutually assured stability.”

At the same time, the U.S. must increase the clarity with which it “transmits to Vladimir” the costs to him and Russia of playing the spoiler. 

Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. This column was originally published by Reuters.

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