Law enforcement officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Moscow.  REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Law enforcement officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Moscow. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The Russian-American relationship received a jolt after Washington took exception to the Kremlin’s handling of protesters in many Russian cities, including Moscow, at the weekend.

The US state department’s acting spokesman, Mark Toner, told the Russian state news agency TASS in Washington that the US condemned the arrest of the demonstrators – who were protesting against endemic corruption in Russian politics – and demanded that they be released. TASS quoted him as follows:

“The United States strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia on Sunday. Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values. We were troubled to hear of the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny upon arrival at the demonstration, as well as the police raids on the anti-corruption organization he heads. The United States will monitor this situation, and we call on the government of Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters.”

The US reaction is prima facie out of sync with President Donald Trump’s world view, which he has articulated repeatedly – namely, that it is not the business of the United States to be prescriptive toward other countries on how they ought to handle their domestic issues.

How far the Trump administration has consciously decided to champion Navalny’s political platform, as Barack Obama’s administration did, is unclear. More likely, it is holding a can of worms that it has yet to figure out what to do with. Besides, Obama-era holdovers are very much still present in Trump’s administration, especially in the foreign policy and intelligence establishment, and they set the pace of day-to-day work.

Navalny is a prominent Russian opposition figure. He has been lionized in the US, although the Moscow establishment brands him as an agent of foreign powers. Indeed, Radio Liberty & Free Europe, which is US government-funded, has disseminated podcasts espousing Navalny’s appeal to the Russian public and highlighting alleged corruption by high state officials. Navalny’s main target in recent times has been Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is a close associate of Putin. What needs to be factored in here is that Russia is also heading for a presidential election in March next year.

To be sure, there is more to these matters than meets the eye. Such intrusive behaviour by the US in Russia’s domestic politics has been deeply resented by the Kremlin in the past and has represented, arguably, the biggest bone of contention the Russian-American relationship during the past several years. However, it is striking that the Kremlin reaction to Toner’s statement was rather muted.

The presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov simply shrugged off the American criticism, saying that Russia’s international commitments “do not transfer into an obligation to violate its own law.” Peskov took the line that the protests were in violation of Russian regulations on public gatherings, which require organizers to receive permission from the authorities “to avoid schedule conflicts and overcrowding.”

Russia has been highly circumspect in its reactions to American provocations in recent months. When the Obama administration declared 35 Russian diplomats personae non gratae at the end of December, President Vladimir Putin held back from retaliating, stating: “Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President D. Trump will carry out.”

However, the Trump administration ought to know that Washington has been lionizing a controversial Russian political personality who was once found guilty of embezzlement.

When the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton championed anti-establishment protesters in Moscow during the December 2011 presidential election in Russia, Putin’s reaction was sharper. “I looked at the first reaction of our US partners,” he said then. “The first thing that the secretary of state [Clinton] did was say that they [the elections] were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers. She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal. They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work.”

In comparison, Peskov simply rejected Toner’s statement as inconsequential. The Kremlin does not want to hold the Trump administration as responsible for crossing the “red line” on US-Russia relations. The door is of course open still for a US-Russian détente. Thus, Moscow will exercise strategic patience and let the Pentagon take its time to seek the Russian military’s help or cooperation in Syria. Equally, it stands to reason that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will go ahead with his planned visit to Moscow on April 12.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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