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The Lights Are on in Washington, but Nobody's Home

Barack Obama claims that Putin is trying to “recreate the glories of the Soviet empire”. The question is whether this is a genuine misunderstanding or a more purposeful and politically expedient one.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

It’s been nearly a month since John Kerry’s amicable reunion with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, but it might as well have been a decade, because the gulf between what is said in Moscow and what is understood — or more appropriately, misunderstood — in Washington, is as wide as ever.

Any predictions that the US was about to change tactics in its Russia strategy were premature.

<figcaption>Eating ice cream from the bottom up. A typical Washington approach to a fairly basic situation.</figcaption>
Eating ice cream from the bottom up. A typical Washington approach to a fairly basic situation.

That was thoroughly confirmed by Barack Obama’s words at the conclusion of the G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps yesterday when he accused Putin of trying to “recreate the glories of the Soviet empire”.

The question is whether this is a genuine misunderstanding or a more purposeful and politically expedient one. I’d be inclined to believe it’s the latter. The reality is, Obama has a team of Russia advisors who monitor Putin’s every utterance. They watch every move he makes, whether at home or abroad, and analyse it intensely. If you’re unconvinced, note the Pentagon report dedicated to deciphering his body language, which concluded — based solely on videos of his public appearances — that he has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Now, either the White House and Pentagon have hired some really terribly inept analysts, or these reports are a deliberate exercise in confirmation bias.

Putin’s latest and lengthy interview, given to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera ahead of his trip to Rome, will no doubt have been dissected to the last breath — and yet the conclusions that have been made bear little resemblance to reality.

At this point, even NATO fans who worried about Putin’s supposed forthcoming Baltic adventure a year ago must now be wondering whether it was really all a fuss over nothing. There has been not a single feasible indication yet that Putin has any interest at all in the Baltic states. More ludicrous still, is the idea that he’d take it upon himself to wander into Poland and hope for the best. And yet the suggestion is trotted out with surprising frequency.

It is utterly inconceivable, based on his public statements and geopolitical manoeuvrings thus far, that any determination could be made that Putin is interested in reviving the old USSR. Even the notion that Crimea’s reunification with Russia was some sort of signal to that effect, does not hold water.

Putin told the Italian newspaper that the Crimea scenario does not reflect some sort of Russian interventionist modus operandi, rather it was a special case, which reflected the “position of the people” who live there. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that the three NATO-member Baltics are going to remain as such for the foreseeable future. Or as Putin put it, “only an insane person” could imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO.

In fact, one of the most lengthy answers he gave the newspaper was in response to a question about the West’s belief that the “Russian bear” must be subdued and the idea that Russia speaks to its partners with a “contentious” tone.

Russia’s foreign policy is “not global, offensive or aggressive,” he said.

With military spending ten times less than that of NATO, almost no bases abroad and no full-blown military invasions since the Russian Federation came into being (save for a six-day war with Georgia, prompted and provoked by the country’s now fugitive president Mikheil Saakashvili), what right-thinking person could argue with that?

As an example of Russian “aggression” the West likes to point to Russia’s behaviour in the seas and skies. Flights over the Baltic, mystery “submarines” stalking Stockholm, dangerous jaunts around the British Isles. Never mind that the Baltic is Russia’s back yard or that the US flies spy planes over the area whenever it likes (including one incident just a day after the downing of MH17 when the US Air Force decided to play chicken with the Russian military, quickly fleeing into Swedish airspace without permission when they were detected).

What nobody ever seems to mention, but which Putin points out for the second time in recent months, is that Russia put an end to these flights completely after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Still, he said, “Our American friends continued to fly along our borders. Why? Some years ago, we resumed these flights. And you want to say that we have been aggressive?”

As for the submarines, he points out that there are American subs on permanent alert off the coast of Norway, equipped with missiles that could reach Moscow within 17 minutes. You might be thinking, don’t be insane, the US is never really going to use them — and you’d be right. That is indeed an unimaginable scenario. But if Russia is forced to accept that no unpredictable military threat exists from the US, why isn’t the US forced to do the same?

It’s possible to detect a certain level of disillusionment from Putin in these interviews. There is a sense that he is exasperated by having to repeat the same thing over and over, only to have it fall on deaf ears each time. But more than that, there’s a sense of genuine disappointment that relations with the US have deteriorated so drastically. Remember, this was a president who actually floated the idea that Russia itself would join NATO shortly after he first came to power.

"We do not see it [NATO] as an enemy. We do not see a tragedy in its existence, but we also see no need for it,” he said in 2001.

He then proposed a "single security and defense space in Europe," which could be achieved either by disbanding NATO entirely or by offering membership to Russia. Such a move, he said, would balance out European security by taking all nations’ concerns into account. In all likelihood, we would not be having the same discussion about Russia today if his suggestion had been taken seriously 14 years ago.

A recent documentary shown by Rossiya 1 confirmed some of this aforementioned disillusionment. Speaking about the fall of the USSR and the thawing of US-Russia relations, Putin said: “I believed that once the ideological barrier had fallen and the Communist party no longer had a monopoly on power, things would change fundamentally [ in our relationship]. But no.”

When two people are at odds with each other over something — even if they hate each other with a fiery passion — they usually understand that a solution, if there is to be one, requires that they meet each other halfway. Geopolitics really is no different. Either you compromise and everyone shares the fruits of a less than ideal victory, or you refuse to budge, and everyone eventually loses.

There are plenty of reasons why the US might feel that the lose-lose option is the best one for the time-being. First and foremost, they are still hoping that Putin will break first. It’s a short-sighted strategy, but it’s the one they’re sticking to.

So Putin can talk all he wants, but he might be better saving his breath. The lights are on in Washington, but nobody’s home.

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