Back in the days of World War II the Soviets had one former foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, and a current FM, Vyacheslav Molotov, to share the two-faced duties of chief foreign representative of the USSR. Litvinov would butter up the politicos in Washington and London while Molotov was Mr. Nyet in Moscow. Today, instead of the good cop/bad cop system, there is the current "man for all seasons," Sergei Lavrov.
Lavrov's style is an interesting and effective combination of smooth, reasoned manner along with an unbending fault-shifting technique that borders on bombast. His manner well reflects the present Medvedev/Putin foreign policy itself. This policy has at its core the residue of the old Soviet communist fear of NATO and American influence in European affairs.
Why Moscow should fear Washington's role in European security matters is hard to understand when it is patently obvious that the Obama Administration is so little concerned with Europe. Yet this is the motivating factor behind the Russian desire to create what has been described as Dmitry Medvedev's pan-European security treaty. If the implications of Mr. Lavrov's behind-the-scenes comments can be credited, Moscow's perception is that the United States is driving NATO toward building an offensive capability challenging Russia's "natural" border of Eastern Europe all the way to and through Ukraine.
How the Kremlin could divine a conflict-avoiding Obama government to be supporting a NATO push eastward is explicable only if the Russian leadership seriously believes it needs a neo-Cold War propaganda line to offset its domestic fears of the future. The fears are legitimate even if the Moscow reaction is not. But even these legitimate fears do not justify the type of exaggerated response emanating from the Russian foreign and defense policy establishment.
It is true that there is a serious potential fall in the Russian population. It is true that the Russian economy has not grown in proportion to the country's new and important role as an energy exporter. It is true that Islamic extremism threatens a large portion of Caucasian Russia. But such circumstances do not justify the dredging up of old attacks on the West's "aggressive ambitions." There is more reason to fear Iranian efforts to infiltrate and exploit the Moslem minority in Russia and the growing Chinese economic influence in Eastern Siberia than the imagined dangers of a U.S.-led NATO aiming to destabilize Russia.
As great as may be the temptation to dismiss Russian foreign policy mutterings by Sergei Lavrov as simply a replay of earlier Soviet international agitprop, it is important to recognize the Russian historical paranoia that goes back to the 19th century. There is an opportunity now for Russia to take great strides in just the areas about which its leaders most rant--strategic defense. But they have chosen to ignore the opportunity.
The program of U.S. anti-missile batteries placed in Poland with radar in the Czech Republic aimed at countering Iranian nuclear missile systems could have been used by Moscow to begin an entirely new defense alignment with Washington. Instead Putin chose to characterize these purely defensive weapons as carrying the potential of aggression against Russia. It was deemed more valuable to the Kremlin to revive fears of U.S. and NATO aggression than to accept the advantages of a mutual defense posture.
In the same manner the Lavrov/bad cop phase of Russian diplomatic schizophrenia has treated nuclear arms reduction with a far less welcoming attitude than it deserves. Of course this is all directed from the current Putin/Medvedev tandem leadership, but nonetheless the "bad cop" side of their foreign minister is once again the same very useful device it was seventy years ago under Vyacheslav Molotov.
This analogy holds true for other periods of contemporary Russian history. Khrushchev tried the Molotov demeanor with the young John F. Kennedy during their meeting in Vienna and then reversed himself the next year when he pulled the Soviet missiles out of Cuba. At present the Russian Foreign Ministry is working overtime to show its two faces at once on Iranian matters, simultaneously smiling in order to keep up Russia's commercial relationship with Tehran, while showing toughness in support of threatened UN sanctions over Iranian nuclear weapon development.
Although this game of offering opposing characterizations of Russia to the world may strike Moscow as a clever way to protect its own ambitions, two-faced diplomacy doesn't really work well in the globalized system in which we must all operate. Operational tacking aside, it's very important for great countries like Russia to aspire to clear and consistent foreign policies. How else can the rest of the world, West and East, formulate its own consistent positions in return toward Russia. Sergei Lavrov, and any successor to him, must be allowed to bury the ghosts of Litvinov and Molotov.