On Sunday, Russia celebrated its 65th Victory Day. For only the third time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a full-scale military parade with Iskander missiles and helicopter gunships and tanks, tanks, and more tanks. (In case America invades?) And, for the first time ever, American troops marched across Red Square. But their president wasn’t there.
For a president who has made it his business to “reset” ties with Russia after the inimitable Bush-Putin duo laid waste to any shadow of bilateral cooperation, it seemed like a strange move. Couldn’t Obama just hop over for a brief parade and rack up major brownie points by standing solemnly next to Medvedev in recognition of the huge sacrifice made and major trauma incurred by the Soviets during World War II – the way that Bush had back in 2005? Back then, relations were in free-fall, and far from today’s friendly rapproachment, but Bush still saw fit to make an appearance at the 60th anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day. It was a sign of respect. Even the president of the Estonians – no friends of the Russians, who took them hostage during the war – came, as did German Chancelor Angela Merkel, herself knee-deep in a European economic crisis and, well, an odd participant in this Victory Parade. What was Obama doing that was so impossibly important?
Turns out, he was giving a commencement speech at Hampton University in Virginia. “I love you guys,” he told the graduates. “That’s why I’m here. I love you guys.”
And then came news of intrigue behind the scenes — on the level of Sweet Valley High two days before the prom.
The Guardian, citing a military analyst at a liberal Russian newspaper as well as “other sources,” wrote that Obama, invoking a prior commitment, offered Joe Biden, then kicking around Brussels, to attend in his stead. The Kremlin – or the hardline, anti-Western Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was apparently in “an uncompromising mood” – turned him down because of Biden’s warm relationship with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is a persona non grata in Moscow. (Putin also allegedly nixed Prince Charles’s offer to attend in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s stead, apparently because the UK was still sheltering oligarch and ex-kingmaker Boris Berezovsky. And the French press was similarly convinced that Sarkozy had offended the Kremlin by canceling his trip the night before.)
“The White House,” the Guardian paper wrote, “is privately furious with the snub.”
But, according to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as well as in the President’s administration, there was no kerfuffle to speak of.
Here’s what happened.
Obama had committed to speaking at the University’s commencement back in February; Kremlin invitations went out months later. Moreover, back in January, the Kremlin had signaled that it was not going to put much emphasis on which foreign dignitaries attended the Victory Day parade; it announced that this year it would not be inviting anyone at all. “Whereas for the 60th anniversary, the President of the Russian Federation sent out invitations to heads of state, this year it was decided not to do this,” said the head of the Kremlin’s administrative unit at the time. “Each government will decide independently whether they will attend, or not.”
When the invitation did come and the scheduling conflict became apparent, however, the President’s staff tried to downplay the event’s significance, and to reassure him that his presence was not required. “We were wrong,” said a senior administration official. “The President very much wanted to attend this event.” When the scheduling conflict became apparent, the official said, the President’s staff “tried many ways to get him there: we tried to get him there and back in time for the commencement, to move the commencement back, and we failed.” According to another American official, Medvedev also did all he could to convince Obama to come.
By this point, however, the traditional Mother’s Day commencement address had been firmed up, and the President did not want to cancel an address at one of the nation’s first African-American colleges.
Trying to troubleshoot, the President’s staff did, in fact, offer Biden as a replacement, but word came back that it was “a heads-of-state event only.” The White House, according to the administration official, was far from furious. Medvedev and Obama exchanged hand-written notes, and Obama invited Medvedev to come to Washington in late June to “discuss a broad agenda, including national security and economic issues.” And, to make up for his absence, Obama granted an interview to Rossiya, a major state-owned Russian TV channel, in which he emphasized Russian-American cooperation on terrorism, Iran, NATO-Russia consultation. (He also gave a shout-out to John Beyrle, America’s ambassador to Russia, whose grandfather fought briefly with the Soviets in World War II.)
In other words, rumors of a ruptured detente between Russia and the US are greatly exaggerated. “[Not coming to the parade] is only an issue if relations are really tense,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Then, if you are invited, and don’t come, it’s a demarche. Now, relations are very intense and very rich. Obama and Medvedev meet frequently, speak on the phone even more frequently, they don’t need an anniversary as an excuse to meet. This will have absolutely no impact on the reset and the relationship with the US. Obama doesn’t care much about the past, especially the European one, and Russia is fully aware of that. Russia – US foreign policy agenda today is fortunately about current events, not about the past ones.”
Indeed, according to an article released today in Russian Newsweek, Obama and Medvedev have been intensely communicating in the last month as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by order of Medvedev, has decided to take a less aggressive stance toward the West.
As for the Russians, no one seemed to notice Obama’s absence. Despite the much talked about the participation of American and European troops in the Red Square parade, Victory Day was an internal holiday. The American president was the last thing on anyone’s mind. When he was, his presence was clearly extraneous at such an intensely private, Russian event.
“Did you hear what Obama said the other day about the second front?” grumbled an old member of the Soviet Communist Party who didn’t want to give her name to an American journalist. “When did the second front even open? It didn’t do anything! But I guess you have to claim part of the victory for yourself.” She turned back to watch the armored personnel carriers trundling by. “Obama addressing the Russian people,” she sneered. “A madhouse.”