The Russians and the Rogues

It is considered the biggest foreign-policy gaffe of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign: On March 26, the former Massachusetts governor told CNN host Wolf Blitzer that Russia “is, without question, our number-one geopolitical foe.” In response, Vice President Biden denounced Romney for having a “Cold War mentality,” and many other critics questioned the GOP candidate’s understanding of global affairs. At last month’s Democratic National Convention, President Obama accused Romney of being “stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

While “number-one geopolitical foe” may have been a poor choice of words, Romney’s broader point about Russia was not terribly controversial: The regime in Moscow “lines up with the world’s worst actors,” he said, and “when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them . . . who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.”
Can anyone really dispute that?

In recent years, Moscow has consistently supported anti-American dictatorships in every corner of the world, and it has consistently defended those dictatorships from sanctions and international pressure. Sadly, the vaunted Obama “reset” policy has not changed that.

Just look at the debate over Syria, where Bashar Assad’s security forces have committed the most barbaric atrocities imaginable. Russia has done far more than any other country to arm the Syrian regime and protect it from global sanctions. When Moscow vetoed a United Nations resolution condemning Syria on February 4, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “a travesty,” and Ambassador Susan Rice said it was “disgusting and shameful.” When Moscow vetoed yet another resolution on July 19, Rice described it as “a death knell” to the U.N. observer mission in Syria.

By aiding Assad, Russia is effectively aiding Iran, which counts Syria as its most important regional ally. Russia is also helping the Iranians by blocking the imposition of tougher U.N. sanctions designed to thwart Tehran’s nuclear program. According to Reuters, a senior Western diplomat recently said that “the Security Council would never adopt another round of sanctions against Iran because of Russian and Chinese resistance.” For that matter, Moscow has declared that the new U.S. sanctions signed into law by President Obama on August 10 are “completely unacceptable” and a “crude contradiction of international law.” On September 8, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov complained that American sanctions “are touching upon the interests of Russian business.”

Moscow has repeatedly made it harder for the West to isolate Iran, and the Kremlin has also complicated U.S. efforts to squeeze North Korea. Former U.N. advisor George Lopez points out that, after the U.N. authorized expert panels to report on sanctions against North Korea and Iran, “Russia supported the Chinese critique of the North Korean panel report.” Meanwhile, Beijing joined Moscow in denouncing the Iran panel report. (Lopez served on the North Korea panel.)

Last month, Russia agreed to forgive roughly $11 billion worth of North Korean debt.  As the New York Times noted:

The forgiveness step, which has been in the works for many months, would help clear the way for Russia to make new investments in North Korea — a development that runs counter to American-led efforts to economically ostracize the North over its expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In a statement announcing the debt deal, Russia’s foreign ministry said that it “marks the beginning of a new stage of development and financial relations between the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

North Korea and Iran were two of the “outposts of tyranny” identified by Condoleezza Rice back in 2005. Two others were Zimbabwe and Belarus.

In July 2008, shortly after the dictatorial Robert Mugabe regime killed dozens of people in a brutal pre-election crackdown, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. Not only that, but Moscow convinced Beijing to veto the resolution as well. “The key thing is that the Russians decided to vote against it,” Britain’s U.N. envoy told the New York Times. “The assessment here is that China would not have vetoed it on its own because they have a range of conflicting interests at stake.”

Then–U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Security Council that “the U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing.” More recently, in August 2012, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Zimbabwe and promised that Moscow would continue to “support it on the international front.”

Closer to home, the Kremlin has been propping up a Belarusian government that is rightly known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Belarus was on the verge of economic collapse last year, until Russia intervened with a $3 billion loan from its Eurasian Economic Community Crisis Fund. In January 2012, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko went skiing with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev and affirmed the strength of their bilateral partnership. “Emboldened by the renewed Russian support,” Belarusian scholar Ilya Kunitski wrote a few weeks later, “Lukashenka has redoubled his crackdown on civil society and sought to completely eliminate the political opposition.” (Not surprisingly, the two largest Belarusian opposition parties boycotted last month’s parliamentary elections.) Writing in the New York Times this past summer, Belarusian journalist Andrej Dynko said that his country would not gain true political freedom until Russia stopped supporting the autocratic Lukashenko regime.

In Latin America, the Kremlin has financed a massive — and massively destabilizing — Venezuelan arms buildup. Last year, no other country imported more Russian ground weapons than Venezuela. All told, the South American nation imported 555 percent more arms between 2007 and 2011 than it did between 2002 and 2006, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. During the first period (2002–06), Venezuela was the world’s 46th biggest arms importer. During the second period (2007–11), it was the 15th biggest importer.

The newly reelected Hugo Chávez is using Russian weapons, not simply to beef up the official Venezuelan armed forces and to frighten neighboring Colombia, but also to equip the pro-government paramilitary fighters that comprise his Bolivarian militia. Indeed, the pro-Chávez militia members carry Russian-made assault rifles and function as Venezuela’s equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. During the country’s recent presidential campaign, they attacked opposition rallies, intimidated supporters of Democratic Unity candidate Henrique Capriles, and guarded polling stations on Election Day.

Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Moscow is in talks with the Castro regime about establishing a Russian naval base in Cuba. (Four years ago, Russia held Caribbean naval exercises with Venezuela.) The Kremlin has also increased strategic cooperation with Chávez disciples in Bolivia (Evo Morales) and Ecuador (Rafael Correa), both of whom have trampled democracy and antagonized Washington.

At this point, the United States should not have any illusions about Russian foreign policy. Moscow has offered support to virtually every dictatorship and anti-American regime on the planet. President Obama tried to change Russian behavior with the “reset.” It hasn’t worked. (Witness Moscow’s recent expulsion of USAID and its withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.) Regardless of who wins the election on November 6, it is time for U.S. policymakers to consider a different approach.

(You can read this article in Spanish here.)

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