The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”
Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:
But instead of making plans for the return flight home, the Preeces and at least five other families are now caught in legalistic limbo, as various officials within Russia’s sprawling bureaucracy try to figure out precisely what the ban means, and — perhaps more important — what higher-ups at the Kremlin actually want and expect them to do.
At a court hearing on Tuesday, Judge Alexandra S. Lopatkina said she could not sign a decree finalizing the Preeces’ adoption without further guidance from Russia’s Supreme Court. Even if she signed the decree, she said, there was no guarantee that other officials would issue the boy a passport. And even if he was granted a passport, she said, immigration agents might block his departure at the airport.
The ban is not universally supported in Russia. There have been impressive public protests against it, and some lawmakers oppose it as well. But other lawmakers and Russian media push back against the supposed cruelty of the adoption ban, some going as far as claiming Americans adopt Russian children to steal their organs or force them into the army. But in fact the ban is cruel, because as one official at an adoption facilitation service told the Times, “only Americans really volunteer to adopt special needs children.”
And the Russian bureaucracy is nothing like what Americans think of when they have to wait in line or press 1 for English. Read Miriam Elder’s story of how the Russian dry-cleaning bureaucracy drove her to tears, and imagine how much harder it would be to adopt a Russian child after Putin has banned the activity. You can circumvent the Russian bureaucracy’s arbitrary hostility if you’re a world-famous actor fleeing French taxation, as Gerard Depardieu learned when he received his Russian passport in about one day, when a simple perusal through the requirements for an internal passport make it seem almost not worth the effort. (When asked by a Russian news service how Depardieu got a passport so fast, a spokeswoman from the Russian Federal Migration Service responded: “It was an exceptional case by decree of the President. And what you have a problem with this?”)
But of course the real problem with all this is that Putin is confident he can torment American families at his whim, because the Obama administration no longer holds any leverage in the bilateral relationship and would like Putin’s cooperation on several foreign policy related issues in Obama’s second term, as the Washington Post reports. And Kommersant reports that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is heading to Russia to meet with Putin after Obama’s inauguration. Donlion would like to “reset” the “reset,” and he will come bearing a some more concessions to sweeten the pot:
The source said that the White House does not include the post-Soviet space in its list of foreign policy priorities, as its main focus is on Asia (“containing China”), the Middle East and Europe.
That is a reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that the U.S. planned to disrupt and stop Putin’s plans for a “Eurasian Union,” warning that it was Putin’s attempt to “re-Sovietize” the region. Perhaps the Obama administration plans to fall back on Conquest’s point about FDR and Carter and “unlearn” what it has found out about Putin’s Russia. After all, knowing what we know now, how could Obama justify that “flexibility” he promised Putin–a promise he seems dispiritingly eager to keep?