It might be time for Russia to take a time out—a strategic pause—in its relations with the United States. Until now, American politicians have assumed that it is up to Washington to decide the terms of the relationship. They are wrong. Relations between the two can only truly prosper when they are based on mutual respect, not truculent antagonisms. Moscow realistically has as much, or as little, at stake as Washington.
The most recent sign of American hubris comes in the form of Congressional denunciations of Moscow for having the temerity to grant former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, a dissident if there ever were one, temporary asylum. Displaying an unusual gift for mixing metaphors, Representative Paul Ryan declared, “This is a stab in the back. This is a slap in the face…That has to come with consequences.” At the same time, Senator Charles E. Schumer said that Russian president Vladimir Putin is acting like a “schoolyard bully.”
But who is trying to bully whom? Who is the true protector of dissidents and human rights? And why should Moscow docilely attempt to assuage President Obama’s injured feelings rather than assert its own interests—including its very sovereignty?
When it comes to the growing hysteria in the American neoconservative and liberal-interventionist establishment, I would like to call attention to two things. First, not all roads lead to Washington. The participation or nonparticipation of the United States in this or that international political, sports or cultural event has, for a long time, ceased being perceived as a special honor (or punishment). The world, friends, has moved to a new phase of development in international relations. Unfortunately, a lot of U.S. politicians and analysts are still stuck in the time warp of the 1990s—the era of the Washington consensus.
Second, in Russian liberal and Western circles, there is frequent talk of a rift in values and culture between Russia and the West. But the West, not Russia, has created the breach. It will only be exacerbated if President Obama caves to political pressure in considering whether to change the format of his participation in the summits in Russia. Even if he does attend the Obama-Putin summit in Moscow and the G-20 in St. Petersburg, the American president’s hands will be tied due to his unclear mandate, and the promise he made with regard to greater flexibility on European defense after the 2012 election will simply be wishful thinking.
Thanks to Obama’s mishandling of surveillance and Edward Snowden, American relations with Russia have been damaged unnecessarily. The amount of energy and effort Obama has devoted to Snowden is astonishing. He appears to be the captive as much of his intelligence services as his own petulance. It is America, not Russia, that is in denial about its abuses of civil liberties.
Poor me. Until recently, I thought that the news of the sweeping NSA surveillance, including telephone conversations and correspondence, and of course, the disclosure that the officials and citizens of American EU allies were spied upon, would prompt Congress to curb abuses decisively. I thought Angela Merkel should head the mass anti-American demonstrations by German human-rights activists after learning that her people were especially singled out for NSA surveillance—500 million phone calls were monitored in one month alone. I thought that bureaucrats, diplomats and European human-rights activists should join their German brethren in holding protests in front of American diplomatic offices in Brussels. I thought that the president of Freedom House, together with the president of the National Endowment for Democracy and other American human-rights defenders, should organize mass protests against the sweeping NSA surveillance in front of the very headquarters of the NSA.
But no. Instead, the egregious David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, an organization that receives the lion’s share of its funding from the federal government, continues to lecture, without any sense of irony, on the importance of upholding civil liberties and human rights. To listen to Kramer on Russia, to borrow from Solzhenitsyn, is as painful as listening to a wolf trying to play the cello. And in Russia, the liberal-human-rights sphere has remained mum about the rights to privacy of Americans and other citizens. Why? What has rendered these self-appointed defenders of liberty, so quick to lash out at Putin, mute when it comes to America?
No doubt there has been some mild dissent in America itself. The press has speculated that behind the ostensible terrorist threat that prompted Obama to close twenty-two embassies and diplomatic missions in different countries lies the desire of the NSA to shift the spotlight on itself in a slightly different direction. The agency hopes to demonstrate that a massive scale of surveillance plays a key role in preventing and forestalling terrorist acts. Yet neither the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey nor congressmen from the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives could clearly explain the source of the most recent alarms. They also failed to explain whether we can expect any terrorist attacks against American targets abroad, at home, or against Western countries’ structures in third countries.
The degeneration of American democracy is also apparent in the tone on Capitol Hill when it comes to Russia. Senators Lindsey Graham, Chuck Schumer, John McCain and others are floating a variety of moves to punish Russia for offering shelter to Snowden. They want Obama to “move the G-20 Summit from St. Petersburg to another country,” “refuse to go to the Obama-Putin summit in Moscow.” They want Obama to “spurn the trip to the G-20 in St. Petersburg” and “examine the possibility of boycotting the Sochi Olympics,” begin a new round of NATO enlargement to include Georgia, and “move towards a more energetic expansion of the system of missile defense in Europe against Russia.”
Take it from me: I have never been a big fan of the deputies in the Russian Duma, but in the context of all these announcements by American lawmakers, even Vladimir Zhirinovsky may start to look like a titan of thought and a model politician. America isn’t damaging Russia with its opprobrious statements. It is damaging its own reputation.
Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.