Medvedev Tests the New U.S. President on the Morning After his Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 213

The forecast by U.S. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden that Russia would challenge a President Barack Obama soon after he would be elected has come true even sooner than could be expected. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attacked the United States, its policies, and some of its closest allies, in his state-of-the-nation address to a special session of the bicameral Russian parliament on November 5 (Rossiya Television, November 5).

Medvedev’s address had originally been scheduled for an earlier date but was rescheduled to be held one day after the U.S. elections on November 4—in effect, a salvo across the president-elect’s bow. The speech seemed almost to ignore Western Europe, however.

Medvedev opened the address by attacking the United States as part of his assessment of the international situation and reprised this theme in several sections of his speech. He indicted the United States from the outset for Georgia’s “barbarous aggression against South Ossetia,” for the “global financial crisis [in which] the U.S. economy dragged down the financial markets of the entire planet,” and for “imposing American anti-missile systems on Europe in an accelerated manner, which will naturally lead to Russia’s response.”

The address reserves disproportionate space and disproportionate vehemence with regard to Georgia, that is, “the criminal adventurism of the Tbilisi regime.” The message is that regime change in that country remains a Russian goal, as well as something to be used as part of trade-offs with the United States.

Medvedev unwittingly damages his case, i however, indicating that any such trade-off would not be the end, but only the beginning of troubles with Russia. Listing the “Russian values” that inspire Russia’s foreign policy, Medvedev mentions the “protection of small nations; and in this regard, the recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence is an example of such protection.”

The implication is that Russia has arrogated to itself a right to “protect” populations beyond its borders using any means, including de facto annexation through military intervention, as long as the global power balance shifts against the United States and the regional balance shifts correspondingly in Russia’s favor. Indeed the speech projects confidence that such a shift has set in, globally and regionally: “A fundamentally new geopolitical situation has taken shape. The August crisis merely precipitated the moment of truth. We demonstrated in practice, to those who sponsored Georgia’s present regime, that we are able to defend our citizens [and] our national interests.” In other words, Russia sees itself in a position to exploit this strategic opening around its perimeter.

NATO is barely mentioned in Medvedev’s address, which includes only a routine condemnation in one sentence about the alliance’s enlargement; and another acid remark (elsewhere in the speech) that the Georgia crisis “was used as a pretext for deploying NATO warships in the Black Sea” (no mention of that mission’s short-lived character).

Medvedev takes personal credit for countermeasures to the planned deployment of U.S. anti-missile defense system elements in Poland and the Czech Republic. “I have made a decision,” he said, to: keep the missile-force division based in Kozelsk on combat duty (purportedly reversing an earlier decision to scrap it); to deploy the Iskander missile system in Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad (in line with Moscow’s earlier threats to target countries that would host the U.S. system); and to use Russia’s Baltic Fleet for these purposes as well.

The omission, or short-shrift treatment, of major international actors is a striking feature of Medvedev’s address. The European Union is mentioned almost as perfunctorily as NATO in this speech. Medvedev seems to treat it merely as an element in global amalgamations when proposing a “Euro-Atlantic space that unites Russia, the EU, and the United States;” and again when envisaging “diversified ties with member countries of the CIS, of the EU, China, India and other major Asian partners, while also [using] the opportunities that are opening up in Latin America and Africa.”

Yet Medvedev does sketch an overture to West Europeans (not the EU as such) by claiming, “The South Ossetia crisis demonstrated the potential for productive European solutions; and we will deepen cooperation with Europe in the security sphere. I am convinced that they have a good future.” The overture is calculated not only to bypass NATO but also to portray the French-brokered armistice in Georgia as successful, which some West European governments want to believe, despite Russia’s major breaches in practice. Moscow evidently hopes to entice West Europeans into some special security arrangements with Russia.

There is also a vague, passing remark in Medvedev’s speech about “broader and deeper cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization.” Departing from tradition and reflecting Russia’s rising global ambitions, Moscow no longer defines relations with the CIS and CSTO as Russian policy priorities: “Geography plays no part in this.” Other countries, such as Germany or Turkey, that entertain grand visions of bilateral strategic partnerships with Russia, however, do not rate even a perfunctory mention here.

By the same token, Medvedev stops short of mentioning the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the clash over Iran’s nuclear program, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, which constitute the top priorities created by the outgoing U.S. administration and bequeathed to the incoming one. Medvedev merely hints that Russia could play at mediation: “Problem countries, irrespective of their location in the world, should be engaged in dialogue, rather than isolated. We are ready to facilitate the settlement of any regional conflicts.” The hope to continue exploiting the U.S. predicaments in those conflicts by positioning Russia diplomatically in the middle seems sufficiently clear.

The familiar Putinist verbiage about multi-polarity and “international law” is still present but in notably smaller doses. Medvedev adds a stronger emphasis on creating a new global economic and financial system, with Russia as a full participant in the decisions and the ruble as one of the global currencies, as a panacea to the financial crisis for which Moscow blames the West.

Listing Russia’s overall policy priorities in the preamble to his address, Medvedev ranked “re-equipping the armed forces and navy” two slots ahead of “education, science, and medical centers.”