Three months after Medvedev became President, a complicated series of actions by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces climaxed on the night of August 7/8, 2008, when Georgia attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers there. In the following days, Russian forces poured into South Ossetia, drove out the Georgian attackers, and then advanced toward Georgia’s capital until European leaders mediated a ceasefire.
Many American commentators depicted this complex conflict as simple aggression against a friendly democracy by an evil dictatorship. In order to treat the brief, tragic war as a melodrama, columnists repeatedly denied, disregarded, or dismissed the fact that Georgian forces had precipitated the clash with Russia by an indiscriminate attack on a sleeping city with rockets, artillery, and tanks.
In the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian war, the Russian stock market plunged, the value of the ruble was jeopardized, and unemployment rose, in part because of the war and in part because of the global financial crisis. American commentators frequently depicted Russia’s financial crisis as punishment for its sins and ridiculed the Russian government as clueless about how to respond or intent on using the crisis to enrich its cronies. U.S. observers also anticipated that economic problems would lead to widespread protests and predicted major challenges to the Kremlin’s authority. However, drawing on large reserves that the fiscally conservative government prudently had set aside, Putin and Medvedev limited the devaluation the ruble, softened the impact of the crisis on ordinary Russians, and preserved much of the popular approval they have enjoyed.
During his first year as President, Medvedev took a number of small but significant steps to broaden popular involvement in Russian political life, subject bureaucrats to more public scrutiny, enhance the independence of Russian judges, and safeguard free expression. Yet American editorial writers professed to see none of those steps, while harsher critics disparaged Medvedev as only an affable front man for a thuggish autocracy.
This American inclination to focus on the dark side of Russia and disregard more positive developments is deeply rooted. Russia has figured in the American popular imagination as an “evil empire” not merely since the onset of the Cold War but since the worsening of religious and political oppression in tsarist Russia in the late nineteenth century. Today key American opinion leaders who promote an image of the United States as the greatest force for good in the world require a contrasting image of Russia as a villainous obstruction to U.S. policies.
Before meeting with Medvedev in Moscow in July, Obama should deliver a major foreign policy speech in which he will set a solid domestic foundation for cooperation with Russia in reducing nuclear weapons arsenals, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities to additional states and terrorist groups, expanding Russian-American commerce, and countering jihadism in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Obama should explain that reducing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, restoring a measure of trust between Washington and Moscow, and institutionalizing continuous dialogue between U.S. officials and their Russian counterparts is essential to create an environment conducive to a continuation of the partial loosening of the authoritarian system that has occurred in the last year.
To make his case Obama must address two polar views that distort American thinking about Russia: a Russophobic denial that Russia has changed in significant ways since the end of the Cold War and a messianic insistence that the Russian regime must be radically changed before it can be a strategic partner of the United States.
In reality, Russia has become a complex, dynamic society, with a larger middle class, a well educated urban population, gutsy newspapers, private radio stations, and lively exchanges of ideas on an uncensored internet. Those elements, Obama should explain, offer hope for gradual liberalization, especially if Russian fears of the West are not exacerbated by unnecessary and provocative actions by NATO and the United States.
David Foglesong is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”. Gordon Hahn is a visiting professor at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and the author of Russia’s Islamic Threat. Sharon Tennison is President of the Center for Citizen Initiatives in San Francisco.