Ignoring Russia

Obama should have gone to Moscow’s Victory Day Parade. Small slights to Russia won’t help us get its cooperation on bigger issues like Iran.

President Barack Obama’s decision to skip Sunday’s Victory Day Parade in Moscow was a substantial missed opportunity to strengthen a still-weak U.S.-Russian relationship. Why it was missed remains unclear, but the potential answers are troubling not only for the “reset” with Russia, but also the administration’s broader effectiveness.

Sending seventy-five U.S. soldiers from Germany to participate in the parade—along with troops from the United Kingdom, France, and Poland—was a step in the right direction in using the powerful symbolism of U.S.-Soviet cooperation during the Second World War to try to rebuild America’s ties to Russia and Russians, who still consider Moscow’s role in defeating Hitler as a tremendous accomplishment. Nevertheless, more substantial gestures by other nations considerably overshadowed the U.S. role in the event and generated intense symbolism of their own.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s participation in the May 9 celebrations—without German soldiers in the parade—was perhaps the most powerful, demonstrating how far the Berlin-Moscow relationship has come since both 1945 and 1989. But trying to weigh Merkel’s role against the presence of Polish acting president Bronislaw Komorowski (with Polish troops) might be trying to make too close a call, especially given that Komorowski was himself there due to President Lech Kaczynski’s tragic death en route to a commemorative ceremony in the dark woods of Katyn.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s May 9 visit was also laden with symbolism, though possibly more of the future than the past in view of Beijing’s minimal role in the victory in Europe marked that day. Hu made clear that at least to an extent, Russia’s priorities are its priorities.

Through his absence, President Obama demonstrated an apparently casual indifference to Moscow’s priorities—all the more damning for Russians because his taking part would have been nearly cost-free. The Russian people could well understand why Britain’s soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was unable to fly to Moscow. While more secure in his political future, French President Nicolas Sarkozy similarly faced a major crisis over the weekend as the euro comes under threat and European leaders negotiated a trillion-dollar package to protect it. By contrast, Barack Obama’s public schedule for the weekend included only one event—a commencement address that the organizers would presumably have been prepared to arrange on another day and around the president’s availability. Had the president been in Moscow, he—not Merkel or Hu—would have stolen the show and the impact inside Russia could have been enormous. Though some deride Mr. Obama’s virtual celebrity status, it has its advantages.

Why then did President Obama stay away when it was clear that he could have traveled to Moscow? One possibility is that the administration did not recognize the enormous opportunity it would forgo. This seems unlikely, however, in view of the number of people in the administration who know Russia sufficiently well to see the potential impact of such a gesture. More probable is that some form of calculation was involved, balancing the costs and potential benefits of the trip.

The only conceivable costs to the president of a high-profile role in Moscow could have come in American domestic politics, where he would likely have been criticized from some for “cozying up” to Russia. And the administration has already appeared very sensitive to charges of being “soft” on Moscow, as was clear in its handling of missile-defense plans in Europe.

Yet what the president and his administration do not seem to realize is that he will face that criticism anyway. In fact, criticism for cooperating with Moscow cannot be avoided but only overcome by demonstrating results that justify the effort. Thus, ironically, giving up the enormous opportunity that Victory Day offered thus makes attacks on the “reset” more rather than less likely to succeed by sacrificing an important chance to symbolically shore up the relationship in a way that everyone in Russia would see and understand.

The administration might hope that Russian support for United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran will blunt domestic criticism of the “reset” and build political support in the United States for deeper cooperation with Moscow. What seems more likely, however, is that disappointment with the weakness of potential new sanctions will fuel a stronger backlash against the effort to engage Russia—making the sanctions resolution (if it passes) the high point of a U.S.-Russian relationship that could again crack under the weight of mutual disappointments.

Alternatively, the administration might not care too much about U.S.-Russia relations beyond the Iran sanctions resolution, which seems to be the president’s top foreign policy goal. But since the resolution is unlikely to resolve anything—and Russian support or opposition could make a big difference in pursuing “plan B” (if there is one)—that would be extremely shortsighted.

Richard Nixon once said “if you’re going to do something controversial, do it all the way, not halfway, because you’re going to take the heat for it anyway.” President Obama could benefit from this wisdom.

Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.