Russian officials complain that at any moment it is difficult to know where they stand in relationship to Washington. Thinking it to be a lack of respect instead of ineptitude, some in Moscow believe the USA simply doesn’t find Russia to be worth the effort needed for successful cooperation on areas of mutual interest.
We wince when Washington so often sends mixed signals and it seems that nobody in the Obama administration understands what is necessary to build constructive relations with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just last month the White House was quietly hinting that the plan was to downplay relations with Russia but wait, this month it’s different–again.
For at least this week, the Obama administration would like to try yet another attempt at resetting American-Russian relations so on Vice President Biden’s early February trip to Munich he expressed the idea to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. You may recall the first attempt just after Mr. Obama’s 2009 inauguration when his staffers didn’t trust their own Moscow Embassy and ignored advice on how to approach the Russians. They even bypassed an ample Moscow Embassy staff of fluent Russian translators and kept the creation of a “reset” button under wraps in Washington.
You perhaps know the story of then-new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presentation of the famous reset button to the Russian government. Unfortunately Obama’s staff had used the wrong word for “reset” when translated into Russian and upon presentation of the button to Mr. Lavrov, with cameras clicking and videos rolling, Mrs. Clinton quickly became the laughingstock of Europe when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called her out on the mistake. The word chosen by the Obama team meant “overloaded” in Russian. Mr. Lavrov, who is a fluent English speaker, chuckled for the moment but in the halls of the Kremlin it wasn’t funny and while publicly the Russians tried to be gracious over the gaffe, privately they wondered why the hell they should take Obama seriously if the relationship wasn’t important enough to use a spell checker or dictionary.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t really all that interested in a reset either. Washington has already surrendered on the idea of missile defenses in Poland and the two sides will never agree on Syria, so in spite of pressing issues like Iran and North Korea, apparently there is little for the two governments to discuss. Mr. Putin has used his own version of a new “cold war” with the USA to temper opposition at home and rather enjoys making America the scapegoat for problems more likely to be traced to policies at home.
An interesting indicator of the success of Putin’s anti-USA tactic is the reaction in Russia over how Americans have reacted to a photo of Mr. Putin riding a bear in the wilderness. To some Russians the very idea that Americans would think the photo to be photo-shopped is apparently just not acceptable. One Russian friend sent the Journal this message: американцы на фейсбуке всерьез обсуждают, фотошоп это или нет (Americans are seriously questioning whether the photo was photo-shopped) as if the very question was offensive.
In the same spirit of seeing photos of an American president pretending to shoot skeet when he clearly doesn’t know how to properly shoulder a gun, well, absent some real-time video coverage to back up a photo of Mr. Putin riding a bear…
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavro has announced that newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may visit Russia shortly with the intention for Moscow and Washington to work at mending their strained relations.
In reality there is much the two countries could accomplish as partners instead of adversaries so let’s hope that Mr. Kerry keeps mum if the subject of Mr. Putin riding a bear comes up in conversation.