Guess what Russians talk about on long-distance calls across the Atlantic.
Besides weather, health, personal finances, and affairs of the heart, what often comes up in conversations is, “Why is it so hard for a Russian to get a visa to the United States?”
The question may not be as na ve as it sounds, given all the recent talk of the two countries' “strategic partnership in the war on terror.”
Unfortunately, that remains just that - talk.
In the long run, changing Russia's quasi-autocratic society into a working democracy that builds a sufficient level of prosperity (so Russian visitors aren't regarded as potential immigrants) could be sufficient for that to change.
But that's provided another condition is met first - stopping acting as a spoilsport in international affairs, even if only to show Congress good intent.
Restricted Russian tourism to the United States is the least of the Kremlin's concerns. Let's look at the Kremlin's foreign policy in matters that concern the United States most: Iraq and North Korea, Russia's longtime allies that arguably present a threat to the United States.
North Korea withdraws from a nuclear nonproliferation treaty with the United States and openly resumes its nuclear weapons program as a direct challenge to the United States. The United States responds by deploying strategic bombers closer to the country and announces that it is keeping its options open.
Just like in the case of Iraq, Russia offers to serve as a mediator. But unlike its stance on Iraq - Russia insists on an explicit U.N. resolution authorizing use of military force against Iraq - it is against the idea that the United Nations should play an active role in defusing a nuclear weapons crisis in North Korea.
“Any internationalization of the issue [North Korean nuclear problem] at this time would be counterproductive ...” Alexander Yakovlenko, official spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, told RIA Novosti, a major Russian news agency, in Russian.
“A direct dialog between PDRNK [People's Democratic Republic of North Korea] and the United States should ensue to become the main element of a diplomatic solution to the PDRNK's `nuclear problem,' although other countries - Russia included - could participate in working out a mechanism of guarantees.”
Is the logic lost on you? Here it is: The U.N. Security Council would be expected to give the United States military a go-ahead to strike North Korea, unless Russia and China veto it at risk of alienating the West. But the Security Council is likely to deny an explicit authorization of an attack against Iraq. After all, North Korea is openly challenging the world opinion with its nuclear program, while the fact that Iraq has nukes arguably remains to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
So the Kremlin is playing a U.N. card in case of Iraq while pretending the United Nations does not exist when the issue of North Korea comes up. This is doublethink, Soviet style.
This doublethink can't hide the fact that the Kremlin is desperately trying to save the two rogue regimes from American wrath so it can later use them as wild cards to counterbalance U.S. dominance in world affairs.
In a more practical and immediate perspective, President Vladimir Putin is playing up to Germany and France with their growing concerns over America's hegemony. Who knows, maybe it will win another lucrative deal or two for the Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly.
But whatever his motives, if Mr. Putin thinks his two-faced diplomacy is lost on an awake observer, he should think again or maybe wake up too.
And as long as Russia keeps defying the world's only superpower, it will likely remain on the outskirts of the Western civilization.
That's what I tell my friends in Russia when pressed to defend America's cautious stance toward aspiring Russian visitors.