- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Reset” is the trendy way the Obama administration describes its Russian efforts. In his “comprehensive” approach, Mr. Obama reversed Condoleezza Rice’s foreign policy aphorism — “neglect Russia.” Instead, the Obama administration has gone crashing ahead, trying to set up a new relationship with an extremely fragile Moscow regime.

Mr. Obama’s charm offensive hasn’t gone any place for the simple reason Russia is an old, wounded wolf, armed with the fangs of an aging nuclear arsenal, but with the stench of death. Falling longevity among men, alcoholism, HIV-AIDS, a nonreplacement birthrate and other factors could cut Russia’s 150 million population by 20 million in the next 20 years.

Any IT nerd could have told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton if you push the reset button, and it doesn’t work, you have to start looking for a new motherboard, power supply, video card, or memory. Maybe “memory” is key given our long Cold War history.

It’s true Mr. Obama’s interlocutor Vladimir Putin’s popularity appears high — probably higher than Mr. Obama’s. But it’s explained by the old Russian lament, “If the Tsar only knew,” protecting Kremlin rulers as the people clambered back into an authoritarian state.

In a bid to set up a Barry-Vlad relationship, Mr. Obama quickly canceled painfully negotiated agreements with the Poles and Czechs of missile defenses capable of countering intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates guarantees a substitute that could counter shorter-range missiles, but mid-January Iranian space flights are not very reassuring, as they presage Tehran ICBMs.

If the Central European abandonment was supposed to produce Russia’s help in halting the mullahs’ nukes, it hasn’t. For the moment, Moscow hides behind Beijing’s opposition to stringent sanctions. And the Kremlin just announced it won’t cut off missile technology which, along with Chinese and North Korean transfers, fuels the mullahs’ program. Furthermore, Moscow is huffing because Washington also needs Romania for the new deployment, treading where the Russians believe they deserve hegemony. And for the new program Washington has had to hustle anti-missile defenses in the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, objects of growing Iranian bellicosity — and seduction.

Picking up on every president since the Soviets got the hydrogen bomb, Mr. Obama reportedly is about to conclude a new strategic arms agreement. That’s seen as incremental progress toward the old vision of a nuclear-free world. Professions of that blessed future helped get Mr. Obama to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize. Truth is the Russians, despite their propaganda, will accept such a deal with alacrity, because it commits the U.S. to real cutbacks while only confirming the erosion of their weaponry (Moscow’s newest ICBM keeps failing tests). Perhaps that’s a draw; Mr. Obama apparently intends to refit our nuclear warheads, a controversial but necessary maintenance.

Efforts generally to woo the Russians back into the post-Soviet-implosion “era of good feeling” aren’t on line. All observers — not just those tacky meaningless polls — report Russian anti-Americanism skyrocketing, despite Mr. Obama’s worldwide mea culpas. Tattered negotiations to get Moscow into the World Trade Organization have stymied over issues the Bush administration couldn’t budge. The office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk doesn’t want to talk about it. The Russians have even threatened the $800 million in American chicken they import, one of the few trade deals going.

The agreement to help out Washington in Afghanistan by transiting non-lethal cargo — made necessary by Pakistan’s deterioration — has been stymied. Mr. Putin’s efforts to thwart U.S. bases in the “-stans” have failed, but former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “southern energy corridor” to move Central Asian fossil fuels to world markets through Turkey is further sabotaged with Russian counter-initiatives and Ankara’s growing love affair with Moscow.

But even with oil prices creeping back up, Moscow’s main economic prop is troubled. The gas monopoly Gazprom is creaking. Intrigue to control European markets has drained resources from poorly maintained pipelines, away from new prospecting. Were there weather or some other emergency, it’s doubtful Moscow could meet its Western European commitments. Going for East Asian markets — including extended negotiations with Beijing — has soured. Mr. Putin’s confiscation of European and Japanese Sakhalin equities has the majors thinking twice about lending capital and technology essential for the next oil and gas push in the Far East and the Arctic.

Minor political rebellions at both ends of the federation — in the Asian maritime provinces and the Kaliningrad enclave — are symptomatic of what could develop into another implosion. Internal democratic forces have been squelched. But Russia’s large Muslim minority is increasingly restive. Mr. Putin’s Georgian aggression last summer, setting up two new Potemkin states, has only aggravated the running sore on his southern flank. Not only has Chechnya not been pacified, but terrorism is spreading to neighboring “republics.” Attempts to organize a state Muslim organization to match the compliant Orthodox Church has come a cropper. There is new Moscow-Muslim Tatarstan tension.

Still, Russian bombast and Mr. Putin’s macho photographs seem to have mesmerized Washington. Never mind if the computer is all hung up.

International Business Editor Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics and business-economics.

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