“Nyet! Nyet!” That’s what a Russian bodyguard told a McClatchy news reporter when the latter asked for comment on an incident aboard the Admiral Chabanenko, a Russian destroyer that carried President Dmitry Medvedev to Venezuela last week. Following the pomp, circumstance and 21-gun salute that are mandatory at such meetings, there was, it seems, a bit of a misunderstanding. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez boarded the vessel, his beefy bodyguards tried to follow him up the gangplank. They were stopped by their equally beefy Russian counterparts. The Venezuelans, who presumably spoke no Russian, tried to push their way through. The Russians, who presumably spoke no Spanish, fought back.
It was all over quickly. “Everything is fine,” a Russian official said afterward. And indeed it was: The rest of Medvedev’s visit to Latin America proceeded smoothly. During his trip to Venezuela, Medvedev reportedly added a couple of passenger planes to the $4.4 billion worth of military hardware Russia has sold to Venezuela since 2005. In Cuba, Medvedev met the ailing Fidel Castro and went sightseeing with his brother Raúl. Yesterday, Russian ships began exercising in the Caribbean. But more than weapons and armies were at stake in this visit. As Chávez himself said a few months ago, the whole show was designed to send “a message to the empire”: Russia is back, and it can play the imperial game as well as the United States can.
And yet — the lingering image of those thuggish bodyguards, shouting at one another in mutual incomprehension, remains weirdly appropriate. For Medvedev was in Cuba and Venezuela last week in part because he wouldn’t get that warm a welcome in Tbilisi or Kiev, let alone in Warsaw or Prague — and also because Russian foreign policy is, at the moment, based on a strange paradox. On one hand, the Russians have returned to the language, iconography and even historiography of imperialism. With every passing year, the anniversary of the end of World War II — and the moment of the Soviet Union’s greatest imperial triumph — is celebrated more elaborately. Soviet songs and symbols are back; threats to deploy nuclear missiles are frequent; Russian leaders refer to themselves as “global players.”
But on the other hand, the Russian political system is uniquely unattractive in the one sphere of influence that Russians have always cared about most: Europe. There are, it is true, Russian-speaking minorities across the eastern half of the continent who rely on Moscow for financing and political support. There are also extremely powerful European business lobbies, notably in Italy and Germany, that can be counted on to praise Russia’s leaders, whatever they do. But the Russian political system — based on crony capitalism, democratic rituals without democracy itself, heavy media controls, omnipresent criminality — isn’t of interest to anyone, and the Russians have trouble creating an empire around it. During the Cold War, there were European (and American) communists who admired the Soviet Union and whose support really could be manipulated for Soviet ends. By contrast, I’m not aware of a single popular movement in any European country, east or west, that is calling for a greater economic role for a Russian-style oligarchy, or more Russian thugs of the sort who were lurking on the gangplank of the Admiral Chabanenko last week.
Some dictatorships to the east are more amenable, of course: Many Central Asian regimes do operate on something like a Russian model, some without the elaborate democratic facade. But influence in those countries doesn’t give the Russian ruling class the sense of importance it craves or the domestic legitimacy it needs to survive. Hence Medvedev’s need to travel somewhat farther afield. Venezuela and Cuba may not be as significant as Germany or Georgia from the Russian perspective, but the image of Russians in Cuba evokes a certain nostalgia. At the very least, it proves that Medvedev, like his Soviet predecessors, can play games in America’s back yard.
One only hopes that President Barack Obama will have the good sense to ignore the whole affair, as President Bush has apparently done. In fact, the best way for the United States to deal with this particular Russian escapade is to treat it as the public relations exercise it was designed to be. Let Russian ships practice all they want in the Caribbean, let Russian and Venezuelan thugs fight it out on gangplanks, let Medvedev spend as much time with Chávez and the Castros as he desires: Their friendship won’t last if oil prices stay low, anyway. A Russian visit to Venezuela isn’t a Cuban missile crisis, even if it is supposed to remind us of one — just as Medvedev isn’t Khrushchev and Castro isn’t quite what he was 50 years ago. History repeats itself, as Marx said — but the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.