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'Do it for Dmitry' doesn't wash

Obama's attempts to sell the New START treaty to Republicans are becoming increasingly desperate.

November 28, 2010|Doyle McManus

The Obama administration has rolled out all the arguments in its attempt to persuade Republican senators to vote for ratification of its pending nuclear arms control treaty with Russia: It's a good treaty; it's a modest treaty; it would enable the United States to resume inspecting Russian arsenals; it's a necessary step toward more important arms pacts in the future.

But as conservative senators have dug in their heels, administration officials have shifted to ominous mode, painting a dire picture of the consequences if New START, as the treaty is called, is not ratified: Nuclear security will be set back; the word of the United States will be devalued; Russians will question whether their newly improved relationship with the West is worthwhile; Russia's willingness to cooperate on other issues, such as Iran and North Korea, will be weakened.

In recent days, they've added another approach: We have an obligation to our favorite Russian leader, President Dmitry Medvedev, to ratify this deal.

"President Medvedev has made every effort to move Russia in the right direction," President Obama said last weekend at the NATO summit in Lisbon. "It's also important that we don't leave a partner hanging after having negotiated an agreement like this."

Vice President Joe Biden, in Washington, made the point a little more bluntly, as Biden often does. Medvedev, he said, has been the key Russian leader pushing for a "reset" of better relations with the United States — not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has been more skeptical — and it's in our interest to give Medvedev a boost.

"I do believe that there is a [political] play here," Biden told me and half a dozen other columnists recently. "Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there."

The message to obstructionist senators is clear: If you won't ratify the treaty on its merits, and you (obviously) won't do it for Obama, then do it for Dmitry — he's our best friend in the Kremlin.

But there are problems with this argument.

Although Medvedev technically has the top job (and titular responsibility for foreign policy), every Russia watcher knows that Putin is the real boss, and that he could reassume the post of president as soon as Russia's constitution allows him to, in 2012.

Are Putin and Medvedev really pursuing different basic policies — authoritarian nationalism for Putin, pro-Western modernization for Medvedev? It's not clear. Some scholars believe the differences are real and that if Medvedev held office without Putin in the wings, he'd move Russia much closer to the West. Others believe the differences are mostly style, not substance. But no one argues that Medvedev could have steered Russia into its current rapprochement with the United States without Putin on board.

Russia scholar Dimitri K. Simes of Washington's Nixon Center notes that both Putin and Medvedev are seeking foreign investment to modernize Russia's economy. The most important change, he argues, hasn't been Medvedev's rise; it's been the fall in Russia's oil earnings, which clipped Putin's wings.

Either way, it won't do Medvedev much good to be portrayed as Washington's poodle.

"If we create the impression that we are building an alliance with Medvedev against Putin, that may not be good for Medvedev's political future," Simes warned. "The White House should curb its enthusiasm for Medvedev's sake."

In fact, the White House's chief Russia expert, Michael McFaul, has tried hard to avoid that pitfall. "We do not have a policy to support one person over the other," McFaul said earlier this year. "There's one president in Russia. We deal with him…. We do not see a difference in policy between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev."

But Obama, Biden and other aides can't resist describing their chemistry with Medvedev as something special. Politicians seem to like the idea of diplomacy flourishing thanks to their special touch in personal relationships, perhaps because it casts them as Great Statesmen rather than mere instruments of their nations' geopolitical imperatives.

It wasn't long ago that critics derided then-President George W. Bush for putting store in his personal relationship with Putin. At their first meeting, Bush said he had "looked the man in the eye" and gotten "a sense of his soul"; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) later jibed that when he looked into Putin's eyes, "I saw three letters: KGB." Franklin D. Roosevelt was confident that he could charm Soviet dictator Josef Stalin; Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did their best to bolster Mikhail Gorbachev; Bill Clinton spent hours jollying Putin's mercurial predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

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