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Evaluating Russia After Sochi and McFaul

Published: February 26, 2014 (Issue # 1799)


U.S.-Russian relations have come to a small moment of opportunity.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul is stepping aside just as Russia is flush with pride over the success of the Sochi Olympics. The exuberance seems to have affected everyone, from those in Sochi whose homes were taken from them by eminent domain to Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny who has called the Games sweet and uniting.

The transcendent spirit of the Olympics strikes again.

Thankfully the Sochi Games ended on a high note and Islamist terrorists did not chose to attack during the closing ceremony on Feb. 23, the 70th anniversary of Stalins violent exile of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations in 1944.

Let us hope and assume that the Sochi Olympics were not, or not only, a monument to President Vladimir Putins vanity, but also a sign of his sagacity about his country and his countrymen.

Russias experience since the Soviet collapse 23 years ago has been defined by a humiliation that New York Times columnist Thomas Freedman rightly called the single most underestimated force in international relations. So the Sochi Games were not just a festival of graft and vanity, not just a grandiose resort and real-estate development, but a canny move to heal the Russian soul.

Two possibilities present themselves here. Putin could become swell-headed from the success of the Games and feel emboldened to act in an even more authoritarian manner, or his new-found sense of pride might free him from the need to see an enemy in every critic and in every foreign-supported NGO an agent of sedition.

If we hope and assume the latter, then how should the U.S. take advantage of this moment, the inflection point?

First, it should be remembered that although relations are bad, they are not only bad. The picture is complex and textured. The U.S. and Russia quietly cooperate in space and in the transporting of personnel and material to and from Afghanistan, factors more important but less newsworthy than, say, Pussy Riot or one leader snubbing the other at an international conference.

So long as Putin is president of Russia, it is hard to see how the bilateral relationship can change fundamentally. The best that can be done is to minimize damage and preserve the significant areas of cooperation that still exist, Mark Kramer of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University recently wrote on these pages.

But Putin could easily be president for another decade. That is 2 1/2 U.S. presidential administrations away. That is Chinese President Xi Jinpings entire term.

Of course, if Putin decides to remain ornery and recalcitrant, there is not a lot anyone can do about that. But Russia, while important in and of itself, is ultimately just one part of the puzzle of a U.S. foreign policy that must center on China. Since China is still very much a work in progress, U.S. policy on China must be marked by flexibility. But flexibility alone cannot define foreign policy. Once the U.S. has made up its mind about China as competitor, rival or enemy it will have a better idea where Russia fits in. It is this lack of a policy more than Putins attitude that is keeping the U.S. stance on Moscow on hold and that will make the next ambassador to Russia something of an interim appointment.

Or maybe we will all soon be too busy fighting floods and blizzards to worry about borders and old grievances.

Richard Lourie is the author of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin and Sakharov: A Biography.





 


ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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