Kramer never addresses the obvious point that Russians genuinely do not care about Syria. It’s deeply confusing to me how someone who gets so agitated about the concept of “democracy” is so completely disinterested in what Russians themselves actually think. Based on all of the evidence and polling, a more democratic Russian government would take pretty much the same position on Syria as Putin’s dreadful autocracy [bold mine-DL]. This is because most Russians don’t care about Syria, and among those that do care about Syria most are supportive of Assad and want to see the rebels defeated.
I would add that a more democratic Russian government isn’t likely to be more welcoming of Western military interventions anywhere, and it is likely to perceive Russian interests in much the same way that the current government does. If Russia were more democratic in its form of government than it is, it could become less cooperative and more combative because a democratic government might feel more obliged to pay attention to public opinion. Russian public opinion is at least as nationalistic and suspicious of Western governments’ motives as the Kremlin is. Kramer notes the Kremlin’s use of anti-Americanism for domestic political purposes without reflecting on the fact that this is politically useful for Putin because these attitudes are popular with many Russians. Imagine a Russian Erdogan-like populist exploiting those attitudes and being in a position of authority to make policy accordingly, and you’ll have some idea of what a more democratic Russian foreign policy could look like. Indeed, one of the consistent failings of Russian liberals has been their willingness to acquiesce to Western definitions of Russian interests, which is one of many reasons why they remain so unpopular. So it doesn’t make much sense when Kramer writes that “seeing Russia move in a more democratic direction is in America’s interests and should be one of our highest priorities.” The obvious questions to ask are these: how is it in America’s interests and why should it be one of our highest priorities? Kramer doesn’t say. It is something to be taken for granted or simply asserted as true.
Of course, it’s possible that the Russian government’s definition of Russian national interest may be different from what some Russians and many Westerners consider to be the “true national interest” of Russia, but for the purposes of setting U.S. policy and building a constructive relationship with Russia this is the only definition on offer. If there is one thing more annoying in these debates than defining U.S. interests far too broadly, it is the conceit that Americans or Westerners can perceive the “true” interests of other countries better than their own governments.
Kramer’s argument really goes off the rails when he invokes the specter of Yalta to describe the very modest changes in U.S. relations with Ukraine and Georgia under Obama:
Indeed, Graham’s prescription for big-power politics inevitably leads to smaller countries getting thrown under the bus, à la the days of the Yalta agreement of 1945.
That’s not a remotely fair description of what Graham said, and the Yalta reference is preposterous. As I and others have explained ad nauseam, no countries were “thrown under the bus” in the last four years to satisfy Russia. Ukraine has turned away from seeking NATO membership because most Ukrainians don’t want their country to belong to the alliance. (According to Gallup, 40% of Ukrainians in 2009 still perceived NATO as a threat to their country.) Georgians have just elected a new coalition to govern their country and to pursue a less confrontational course with Russia, but in most respects U.S.-Georgian relations remain unchanged. If the U.S. is not being as aggressive in promoting Georgia as a client state and future NATO member, that is almost certainly better for Georgia than the disastrous approach tried by the previous administration. Comparing these developments in any way to what happened in the wake of the Yalta conference is absurd.