Wed, 19 Oct 2016 10:43 UTC
The US president has had a few notable things to say about Russia in recent years. For instance, how it's a "regional power [that] doesn't make anything" with its "economy in tatters" which is "isolated." He also believed for a long time that it had no immigrants - despite being the second most popular migration destination in the world.
This week, Obama has suddenly changed his stance. And Russia has been upgraded, in his estimation, from a puny Danny De Vito to a towering Arnold Schwarzenegger. He told reporters in Washington how "we think that Russia is a large, important country with a military that is second only to ours."
Now, while his new stance is a bit more accurate, not to mention sure to go down well in Moscow, it also confirms how all over the shop Obama is when it comes to understanding Russia.
Especially if you consider what he said next. Obama criticized Donald Trump for flattery toward a Kremlin supremo, which Obama said was "unprecedented" in US politics. Completely forgetting the time when a gravely ill Franklin D. Roosevelt travelled to Tehran to meet Josef Stalin, who refused to venture to Cairo. His successor, Harry Truman, later agreed to visit Yalta for the post-World War II peace conference because the Soviet leader didn't fancy flying.
Obama also failed to remember Bill Clinton comparing Boris Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln, back in the nineties. The high praise was for suppressing the Chechen rebellion. This later became a bad thing when Putin inherited Yeltsin's conflict and implemented much the same policies, just more successfully. Because in American eyes, Putin is bad, whereas Yeltsin could do little wrong. Of course, Russians - who were directly affected by both leaders' choices - tend to take a completely opposite view of the two presidents' record in office.
Anyway, back to Obama's direct comments on Russia's status. His"regional power" assertion always seemed ludicrous in light of his own engagement with it. After all, if Russia were truly restricted to its own hinterland, why negotiate together on Syria? Not to mention Iran, where the Moscow-aided atomic deal is widely considered the current administration's finest foreign policy achievement. Plus, how comical anyway was referring to owner of the planet's pre-eminent nuclear arsenal as a local actor?
Then there's the idea of Russia not making anything. Where does Obama think they got all those weapons we see on display in Syria? Or did the President ever manage to explain how American astronauts get to the International Space Station these days? Because even schoolchildren know that they hitch a ride on Russia's Soyuz craft.
No money, no funny
Perhaps Obama thought the Russians were buying this equipment, but that wouldn't tally with the notion of how the economy is "in tatters." Which was nonsense anyway, because according to IMF estimates for 2016, Russia boasts the sixth-biggest economy in the world, when adjusted for purchasing power parity. Now, it's true to say nominal dollar GDP has taken a big hit since the 2014 currency crisis, but Moscow isn't paying out on wages, pensions and most general budget expenditure in greenbacks, it's doing so in rubles. It's also worth comparing the Russian economy ($3.7 trillion) to other UN Security Council permanent members such as France ($2.7 trillion) and Britain ($2.8 trillion).
Let's not forget the "isolation" argument either. A cursory glance at Putin's website shows how in the past eight days he has had private and personal meetings with the following: South Africa's Jacob Zuma, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi, Brazil's Michel Temer, Armenia's Serzh Sargsyan, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro. He's also conducted phone calls with Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande and the new United Nations' Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This is not the diary of the leader of an "isolated" country, is it?
Old hat, new path
So, Obama has changed tack. And that's fair enough. Russia is now "large and important," albeit "aggressive." Naturally, the US itself is never threatening or combative and its bombs are made of candy.
Let's be clear, Obama's overall interaction with Russia has been disastrous. He never understood the country, nor apparently wanted to get a proper grasp on it. To compound matters, the US president also chose badly when it came to advisors on the subject. Hiring the likes of Michael McFaul - whose brief tenure as ambassador to Moscow was catastrophic, hanging out with fringe opposition activists upon arrival being about the silliest move possible - and allowing Victoria ("F**k the EU") Nuland to be retained as the State Department's point person in Russia's neighborhood.
In 2012, Obama was unwittingly recorded telling former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would be more "flexible" on Russia upon his re-election for a second term. As Obama's presidency enters its lame duck last months, there's still a brief window to salvage something from Washington-Moscow relations.
If Obama fails to grasp this chance, he'll leave his successor civil wars in Ukraine and Syria to manage and a dysfunctional rapport with the Kremlin to transform. Tuesday's comments suggest reality has finally dawned on him. Is it too late?