May 2, 2009
Obama and RussiaBy Kim Zigfeld
One hundred days into his first term, President Barack Obama has now held formal televised news conferences in each of this first three months in office (February 9th, March 24th and April 29th). Shockingly, despite famously proclaiming a desire to "reset" relations, not once has he been asked a question about Russia and only once, at the first conference, has he himself chosen to discuss Russia, pleading for its assistance in dealing with the issue of nuclear proliferation in response to a question about Pakistan.
It's clear that America's journalists are asleep at the switch. But there's nothing new in that, as we here in the blogosphere know only too well. Assuming they are, nothing is stopping Obama from making a speech standing up for American values and national security, which are under daily assault from neo-Soviet Russia. He already had one opportunity to do so, when he recently met with his Russian counterpart in London, yet he remains silent.
Instead, he has horrifically botched his handling of Russia's efforts to subvert the U.S military base in Kyrgyzstan, an important strategic location for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and checking Russian imperialism in Central Asia, giving Russia the impression that receiving illusory promises on nuclear disarmament is all he cares about.
His silence is particularly odd since by assertively standing up for American values he could separate himself dramatically from his predecessor and confirm that his campaign rhetoric was something more than smoke and mirrors, all at one go. George Bush infamously looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes, glimpsed his soul and declared him trustworthy. He hosted a known Russian war criminal in the Oval Office, posing with him for a photo op. He said nothing when Putin shamelessly rigged his own reelection and succession, nothing about the Kremlin's complicity when the heroic reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down, nothing when the investigation he demanded did not occur. So in a sense, one could almost say that Obama is following in Bush's footsteps.
Perhaps Obama's excuse is that he emulating JFK, and wants to wait until Russia again tries to base ICBMs in Cuba (or Venezuela) before taking decisive action. Indeed, it may be that even more disturbing than Obama's silence is the failure of the Republican Party, heirs of Ronald Reagan, to call him on the carpet for this lapse. John McCain, who during the campaign season showed what seemed to be remarkable leadership when he called for Russia's ejection from the G-8 in retaliation for its misconduct, is by far the worst offender in this regard.
Even a brief review of recent Russian provocations should horrify any patriotic American.
For more than a year now, Russian nuclear bombers have been resuming the Soviet-era practice of buzzing NATO countries, forcing them to scramble fighter jets to ward off the provocation even though NATO has never once done such a thing to Russian targets. Russia has been providing money, weapons and diplomatic support to rogue American enemies like Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Venezuela. It is only because of Russia that Americans must worry about Iran having a nuclear device. Russia has even obstructed the application of sanctions to North Korea. Russia's ruler, Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly blamed the United States for causing the world financial crisis. Russian troops have marched into Georgia, an applicant for NATO membership, murdering civilians with the use of illegal cluster munitions, and Russia has repeatedly applied blackmail tactics against Ukraine, threatening to cut of energy supplies if Ukraine dares to move towards NATO. Russia launched a virulent campaign of cyber warfare against Estonia when the tiny nation dared to thumb its nose at the Kremlin. In short, it threatens to rebuild the iron curtain.
Russia's abrogation of American values within its borders has been even more provocative. Obama seems oblivious of the fact that dark-skinned Russians are routinely being lynched on the streets of Russia's capital and in its subway system. National and local elections are scandalously rigged, opposition parties have been purged from the parliament, and the Kremlin controls the content of the major television networks and newspapers in a manner not one bit different from what was done in Soviet times.
At the last Olympic games, the melody of the Soviet national anthem was played for Russia, and in a national poll Josef Stalin was named one of the country's three greatest all-time heroes. The judicial system is hopeless manipulated by the Kremlin, most sensationally to railroad presidential hopeful Mikhail Khodorkovsky off to Siberia, and Putin has even used the military draft and threats of college expulsion to silence the young generation of protesters. Most disturbingly, dozens of high-profile Kremlin critics have been murdered in a variety of gruesome circumstances dating from Putin's first days in the Kremlin (parliamentarian Galina Starovoitova) right up to the present day (attorney Stanislav Markelev), with not a single killer brought to justice.
Yet, Obama seems totally unwilling to stand up for the values he supposedly lives by where Russia is concerned. What's particularly frustrating about this attitude -- it can only be called cowardice or ignorance -- is that right now America has a position of pure dominance over Russia that gives it a golden opportunity to use leverage to force Russia away from its neo-Soviet path. Last year, with crude oil prices three times their current level, Russia was intoxicated with arrogance and far beyond reason. But now, if Obama were to speak firmly, Russia would have no choice but to listen.
The nature of American dominance is stark indeed.
One of the least-noticed facts about Russia by those who call themselves her "defenders" is that each year the USA and Russia produce virtually the same amount of crude oil. Russia generates an income stream in foreign currency from its production which America lacks only because the American economy, immeasurably more potent and powerful than Russia's, uses all of the country's supplies for manufacturing and more, making huge purchases on the international markets, while Russia is able to use only a tiny fraction of the oil it produces in its anemic, pathetic neo-Soviet industrial base.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Russia also manages the economic energy it does somehow generate far, far worse than America does, leading to anemic performance that bespeaks the total lack of credentials wielded by the clan of KGB spies that govern Russia.
No clearer illustration of this, for Russia, bitterly harsh reality could be offered than to compare the two countries' energy behemoths, America's Exxon-Mobil with Russia's Gazprom. Exxon posted a record profit of $45 billion in 2008. Its fourth-quarter results were down because of falling prices for crude oil, but just 33%, and it rose to the top of Fortune 500 for the year. And Gazprom? Russia's entry in the competition, a monopoly run by the Russian government itself, saw its profits fall by a whopping, truly breathtaking 84% in the fourth quarter. Its total profits for the year were less than $30 billion, one third less that of Exxon Mobil, a single private American firm, and well below the market's expectations.
This pure domination continues in the wider economic picture.
The world learned last week, for instance, that Russia's GDP shrank 9.5% in the first quarter of 2009, even more than the 7% that that the Kremlin had originally reported. Here again, Russia's performance was over one-third worse than America's. The U.S. economy shrank just 6% in the first quarter. The World Bank puts the value of Russia's GDP at $1.3 trillion. The U.S. GDP in other words is ten times larger, at $13.8 trillion. The difference, of course, is expanding rapidly as the Russian economy contracts much more dramatically than its American counterpart, and translates into hugely different standards of living. America ranks #30 in the world for adult lifespan, Russia ranks a shocking #128 and is among the worst offenders for divorce, suicide and murder. America's military budget dwarfs that of Russia, and Russia is being forced by its economic woes to make massive cuts in its conventional forces (Russia still has universal conscription and a million-man army).
At the level of microeconomics, the disparity is stark indeed. Russia has only five companies on Fortune's list of the world's 500 largest, a lowly 1% of the total that must be shocking for those who imagine Russia to be an economic titan and "energy superpower." Not one of Russia's companies has revenues in excess of $100 billion. America has 153 companies on the list, nearly one-third of the total, thirty times more than Russia. Fifteen of the American firms have revenues in excess of $100 billion. The healthcare giant McKesson, the smallest of the 15, has significantly more revenues than Russia's bulwark industrial giant Gazprom, which is the largest of Russia's enterprises. Russia has just 32 billionaires, none worth as much as $10 billion. America has more than ten times that number, and twenty of them have more than $10 billion in net worth.
America's Dow Jones stock market index has descended from a record high of 14,000 to a current position at 8,000 -- a loss of roughly 40%. The performance of Russia's market has been far worse: Its RTS index has crashed from a high of 2,400 to a current position of 800, a loss of nearly 70%. Russia's currency has plummeted along with the market, spurring runaway double-digit inflation and unemployment far in excess of what America has experienced. While the U.S. government is undertaking a massive new spending plan in the hopes of spurring economic growth, Russia's Finance Ministry warns of the need to make a draconian 30% cut in spending in 2010 just to keep the nation's head above water.
If he's ever asked, it may be that Obama would try to rationalize his appalling silence on Russia by making two claims: First, Russia is so weak it can't threaten the mighty U.S., and second Russia shouldn't be alienated because its help is needed fighting international terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
Such claims are obviously impossible to reconcile, it's necessary to choose one or the other. If Russia is impotent, it's simply silly to imagine it can help solve the great issues of our time. If it's powerful enough to do so, it's powerful enough to wreak havoc on the basic principles of democracy that America stands for.
Nor do such claims explain why Obama would choose to leave the hapless citizens of Russia to face the neo-Soviet meat grinder, much less the innocent citizens of bordering nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Doesn't Obama care about their fate at all?
But most important, the claims are hopelessly naïve. Obama has no real knowledge about Russia (or indeed most parts of the planet -- he thinks Austrians speak Austrian, for instance), and he needs to be educated quickly. Russia is governed by a proud KGB spy who is to all appearances a "president for life" figure we will be dealing with for decades. He has spent all his life learning to hate the United States, and his hatred was magnified a thousand fold when he saw his beloved USSR destroyed by the Reagan call to arms. Having spent a good deal of time spying on Germany, he is somewhat skilled in duping foreigners about his intentions (many of them are found in our hapless press), but he is merely biding his time waiting for the next opportunity to strike. The longer America waits to confront him, the more chance he has to grow stronger and more dangerous.
The time has come for Mr. Obama to speak up, and for the Republicans who oppose him to speak up even louder. History will judge them both cruelly if they do not.