Russia searches for right tone on Obama
Analysis | By Conor Sweeney | November 14, 2008
MOSCOW (Reuters) - After Barack Obama's election win, Kremlin officials argued over whether Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should congratulate him with a warm, handwritten letter or an impersonal note, according to one analyst.
Russia's intense dislike of U.S. policies and its resolve to stand up to them are not in doubt but the anecdote illustrates a dilemma the Kremlin is wrestling with about what tactics to use in dealing with an Obama White House.
Do they pile on the pressure to force him to drop disputed projects like the missile defense system in Europe, or take a more conciliatory tone, hoping that if they do not alienate him Obama will take a softer line on Russia than his predecessor?
In the end, Kremlin officials compromised by sending him a telegram while dropping the icy tone, said Nikola Zlobin, of U.S.-based think tank the World Security Institute, who said he had been told the story by several Russian government sources.
But signals from the Kremlin since Obama was elected suggest there is still no consensus about what tactics are best.
On the day after the U.S. election, Medvedev announced he would deploy Iskander medium-range weapons in Russia's westernmost territory in retaliation for the planned U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
A week later, Medvedev told France's Le Figaro newspaper he would drop the missile deployment if Washington scrapped its own system. He said he had a good telephone conversation with Obama and hoped for good relations.
Moscow may also find that European nations that have been unenthusiastic about President George W. Bush will be under pressure to fall into line with an Obama administration.
Obama has said he wants to be sure the missile defense system is effective before approving it -- a more cautious approach than that of Bush.
But some observers say if he drops the project after the latest Russian threats, he will hand ammunition to his domestic opponents who have accused him of being weak on Russia.
"I think the word would be puzzlement as to what the objectives were, was it to put down a marker?" a senior European diplomat in Moscow said of the Russian plan to deploy the Iskander missiles near Poland's border.
"But if that's the case, it is counterproductive by making it more problematic for Obama not to proceed (with the missile defense system)," said the diplomat.
In Washington, a Bush administration official who is key to U.S. policy-making on Russia thinks Moscow is trying to intimidate Obama's team. He also thinks the effort will fail.
"They are making a mistake if they think the Obama administration will automatically lie down, because they won't," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "These (Obama's advisers) are serious people, and they are not apt to be frightened off by the Russians at all."
Among Obama's foreign policy advisers is Anthony Lake, who worked on NATO enlargement issues while he was former President Bill Clinton's national security adviser from 1993 to 1996.
STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
If there is a debate in the Kremlin about what tone to take, there is none about substance.
The missile defense system -- which Washington says is needed to protect against possible attacks from Iran -- is seen in Moscow as a threat to Russia's national security.
Washington's support for giving NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, ex-Soviet states where Russia says it has special interests, is viewed by Moscow as crossing another "red line."
The Kremlin also accuses Washington of goading U.S. ally Georgia into war with Russia in August.
Moscow's main trading partner for energy and other goods is Europe, not the United States, with EU countries spared most of the sharp verbal attacks saved for the United States.
"Medvedev really believes the U.S. is responsible for the war in Georgia," said Zlobin. "The level of anger in the Kremlin against the U.S. is very high."
"Moscow is saying, 'If you want to change the world, as Obama wants, then we will be the biggest obstacle unless you deal with us.'"
Earlier this month, a pro-Kremlin youth group held a well-organized protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
A video shown at the protest compared Bush with Hitler, triggering a U.S. complaint, diplomatic sources have said.
A Russian action movie now in cinemas captures the popular mood. "Strangers" depicts a group of fictitious U.S. aid workers in the Middle East who behave arrogantly and show insensitivity to their Arab hosts.
Whatever tactics the Kremlin deploys, the hope in Russia is that Obama will be more sympathetic to Russian concerns.
"Many people think, especially here, that (the) Democrats will be more ready for negotiations on missile defense," said Tatiana Parkhalina, the director of the Moscow-based Center for European Security. "This is a message to the new administration that you have a choice, the ball is on your side."
(Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Cooney)