Many foreign policy mavens were set alight when President Obama's off-mic moment with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev drew America's attention back to Russia. More disturbing than the President's request for "space" before dealing "flexibly" with ballistic missile negotiations was the President's chummy, familiar pat on Medvedev's arm. It looked unprofessional and even vaguely un-American. If the President were the head of another nation competing with Russia, the behavior would be equally un-representative of that nation's interests.
Russia is not the enemy of the U.S., but they are hardly an ally. Russia holds 45% of the world's nuclear weapons, is a consistent trade competitor, and is the world's top oil exporter. Russia has supported rogue regimes around the world throughout Putin's tenure, and long-simmering frustration with Putin's oligarchy has fostered in a genuine opposition movement. But Medvedev appears to be President Obama's friend – a Russian attorney turned Putin's right hand man and lifelong political operative nicknamed "Vizier" in Kremlin circles. According to Russian policy expert Robert Legvold, President Obama spent more time on the telephone and in conference with Medvedev than with any other foreign leader prior to the signing of the 2009 START accords.
Obama has invested considerable time into Medvedev, a man who is essentially an oligarch sharing power with an even more powerful and autocratic oligarch, Putin. Putin is presiding over the not-so gradual disintegration of a massive nation's infrastructure, decrepit economy and traumatized culture. Russia's own economic goals include achieving the per-capita GDP of Portugal by 2020, and economic predictions are far from rosy.
It isn't President Obama's job to be the aggressive toward Russia and its leaders. In fact, it is his job to find reasonable areas of cooperation, particularly in areas of security and trade. It is hopeless to think the Russians will make any type of accommodation in situations like the Syrian rebellion, but it's not unrealistic to be concerned about a weak military and corruption causing nuclear weapons to fall into the wrong hands. A pat on Dmitry Medvedev's arm and some soothing, chummy words? Medvedev may be pleasant, but he's hardly trustworthy. Anyone with doubts about Russia's official position on matters like Syria and U.S. politics just needs to check out English-language Pravda.