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More Than a 'Reset' Needed in U.S.-Russia Policy

President Obama can be credited for having been the first American leader to meet with members of the Other Russia opposition, including Gary Kasparov and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, co-author of the definitive white paper on the Putin regime. That event, small but significant in itself, took place last July during Obama’s two-day summit in Moscow, at which the much-sensationalized topic of a “reset” on U.S.-Russian relations culminated in the following decisions:

1. In the interest of prompting Russian cooperation on further UN sanctions against Iran and the halting of its nuclear weapons program, the United States would abandon its proposed missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and refrain from publicly criticizing Russia’s authoritarian domestic policies and human rights abuses;

2. Both countries would initiate negotiations toward a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT);

3. Russia agreed to let U.S. military planes to transport troops and weapons in its skies toward Afghanistan without incurring transit charges;

4. A bilateral presidential commission would be created to accelerate the pace of U.S.-Russian engagement on a host of issues ranging from civil society, culture, arms control, agriculture, education, and science and technology.

Six months have passed since the United States set about offering inducements to good behavior to its former Cold War antagonist, and it’s worth assessing the progress that’s been made thus far.

After committing herself last December to the view that human rights in Russia is a subject best discussed “behind closed doors” for the sake of comity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not uttered a single critical word in public for the Kremlin’s erosion of democracy and violation of basic freedoms that have continued apace since Obama left Moscow. (According to some reports, she hasn’t uttered any in private either.) The worst of these abuses arguably occurs in the realm of Russian media — or better to say, media that isn’t owned and operated by the state.

In September 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released “Anatomy of Injustice,” a well-researched and comprehensive report on the killing of Russian journalists, from the recognizable yet vulnerable muckrakers of Novaya Gazeta to the bold editors of backwater newsletters. Russia is the third deadliest country for journalists, behind Iraq and Algeria, and the ninth worst at investigating their murders. As CPJ board member Kati Marton wrote in her preface:

The 17 who have been killed in recent years covered a wide range of topics: organized crime, corporate corruption, bribe-taking among public officials, unrest in the Northern Caucasus republics (for, though the war in Chechnya has been pronounced over, in reality, bloodletting has merely relocated to its neighbors). A charade of justice followed each of these killings. Typically, authorities quickly substitute robbery or personal grudges for real motives. At times, the official response would be comic were it not for the tragic outcomes.

For all the attention that the West pays to China’s censorship of Google, vanishingly small concern is shown for the inevitable fate of independent-minded reporters in Russia who defy the state or the mafia elements who get away with murder so long as they don’t meddle in politics. Not that there aren’t marked successes by some brave dissidents. My friend and democratic activist Oleg Kozlovsky found recently that his difficulty in obtaining a passport for travel overseas quickly evaporated once his case became known to blogs and Twitter. (Kozlovsky was previously conscripted into the Russian army as a way of shutting him up.)

The Romanian novelist and hardheaded Communist sympathizer Israit Panati remarked upon being given an official tour of the Soviet Union in 1927: “Yes, I see all the broken eggs. Now where’s this omelet of yours?” The State Department’s supposed yield from acquiescence to Putinist criminality was to have been cooperation on Iran. Unfortunately, no one seems to have informed the Putinists.

Just this month Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Rosatom state nuclear corporation, told reporters in Moscow that “2010 is the year of Bushehr,” referring to the long awaited $1 billion nuclear power plant that Russia has been building for Tehran for a decade and a half and that the United States and European Union agree is intended for military rather than civilian purposes.

And those sanctions? While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled impatience with Tehran’s refusal to abide by a Kremlin-proposed fuel production agreement, he has not formally endorsed new financial tethers on his country’s major trading  partner. Lavrov spoke at length to reporters at a Moscow press conference on January 21 and sounded more like Europe’s public relations consultant for the mullahs when he said: “Our goal is absolutely transparent. We want the international community to have no doubt in the exclusively peaceful nature of this program. With that understanding, no one questions the right of Iran to use peaceful nuclear energy.”

No one now seriously entertains the idea that peaceful nuclear energy is what Iran is after. Nor does Russia have any qualms about arming Tehran. “There are no formal bans which would bar the delivery of any types of weapons to Iran,” Anatoly Isaikin, the head of the state arms trader Rosoboronexport, told a news conference last Thursday. In 2007 Russia signed a military contract with Iran, agreeing to sell S-300 air defense missiles to the Islamic Republic. To date, none has been delivered, but perhaps after Lavrov convinces the international community that these missiles are not intended to shoot down warplanes targeting an illicit uranium enrichment facility that Iran surely doesn’t possess, the terms of the contract will be fulfilled.

As to the reduction in nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States, some headway has indeed been made. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said a START treaty is “95 percent” done, although recent domestic political events should temper the White House’s enthusiasm for what would represent its only significant foreign policy accomplishment to date. As David Firestein has observed in the Moscow Times, Congress must ratify any treaty and

[s]ubstantively, many Republicans, and some Democrats, have concerns about key provisions of the accord, particularly, those pertaining to verification provisions. In addition, many senators have expressed concerns that START shouldn’t be ratified unless they can secure guarantees that the reduced U.S. nuclear arsenal will be sufficiently modernized. Politically, the Republicans, emboldened by strong state-wide victories in recent months in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts, will be disinclined to hand Obama a significant foreign policy achievement in advance of midterm elections in the fall.

Although he made the CTBT a crucial point of his foreign policy platform when campaigning for presidency, Obama has not been able to build a consensus on ratification since the treaty was last narrowly defeated (48-51) in a 1999 Senate vote, which fell mainly along party lines. (Sixty-seven votes are needed for ratification, a figure that the president could not necessarily muster even without further projected Democratic losses in the Senate.)

As far as U.S. flyover rights are concerned, though these were certified by Russia for use in Afghanistan, only twelve shipments have thus far made it through due to what the New York Times calls “bureaucratic wrangling.” More substantively, NATO has three other alternative routes to take in its so-called northern supply line: Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which just agreed on January 27 to allow nonlethal cargo to be transported by rail over its territory.

Finally, the bilateral presidential commission, conceived as a grandiose staging platform for so many little Helsinki Accords, has similarly gotten off to a rocky start. The problem began when Russia chose to appoint Vladislav Surkov to head the commission’s working group on civil society. Surkov is to Putin what Mikhail Suslov was to Brezhnev — ideologist in chief and the architect of many of the institutions of state terror. Known colloquially as the “Grey Cardinal,” Surkov, whose official title is deputy presidential chief of staff, was behind the formation of the pro-government youth squad Nashi (“Ours”), which bills itself as an “anti-fascist” movement but is more accurately described as a mephitic fusion between the Soviet Komsomol and the Hitler Youth.

Nashi’s pubescent debut was countering demonstrations in Moscow waged on behalf of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, which ended (at least temporarily) Russia’s irredentist stage-managing of it former satellite’s internal political economy. Since then, Nashi has threatened the British ambassador in Moscow, Tony Brenton, for his willingness to meet with the opposition at its Another Russia conference in July 2005; held daily protests outside the Estonian embassy — and accosted Estonia’s ambassador Marina Kaljurand — for Tallinn’s decision to relocate a World War II memorial on its own soil, erected by the Soviets during their occupation of the Baltic nation, from a city thoroughfare to a proper military cemetery; routinely harassed anti-Putin protestors; and waged social campaigns against drinking, smoking, abortion, and birth control.

However, Surkov is best known for being the coiner of the phrase “sovereign democracy,” which, as Masha Lipman of the Washington Post defined it, “conveys two messages: first, that Russia’s regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs.”

So making this glowering bureaucrat the dragoman of Russian civil society is rather like appointing a date rapist to lead a Take Back the Night rally. But that hasn’t stopped Michael McFaul, the American co-chair of the working group and Obama’s main Russian policy adviser, from sounding positively gleeful about his first confab with Surkov, which occurred in Washington on January 27. Here is an excerpt from McFaul’s interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a day later:

RFE/RL: As I’m sure you’re aware, more than 60 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama in December protesting the appointment of Mr. Surkov as the group’s co-chair. The legislators called him “one of the masterminds behind Russia’s authoritarian course” and urged Obama to boycott these meetings until he was replaced. Did that controversy come up either in today’s meeting or in the run-up to it? And also, do you think the letter cast a pall over the group’s ability to work productively?

McFaul: It didn’t come up as an issue for discussion. Of course, I’m well aware of the controversy. And I guess my reaction to it is, let’s be clear — this was an initiative by the United States government to try to create this working group. It was my initiative, I’ll tell you very honestly. It was my idea. And we were happy that the Russians agreed to have this as part of the bilateral presidential commission.

That said, it’s not for us to choose who the Russians decide should be the co-chairs of any of these working groups. I can’t even quite understand how one would do that. I know the controversy around Mr. Surkov, and I’ll leave that for others to comment on. Maybe there was a time in American history when we were that powerful and we could tell other countries what to do all the time and who to name to bi-national commissions, but we are certainly not trying to do that in our relationship with Russia today.

Spoken like a true exponent of the “post-American” presidency. McFaul then went on explain that although Surkov has an unsavory reputation in the United States, McFaul himself has one in Russia, “given what I’ve written and what I’ve said about Mr. Surkov’s bosses,” and so this menage of mutually suspicious bruisers is actually an encouraging sign for bilateral relations. Yet rarely have members of the Obama administration, in seeking to apologize for perceived U.S. perfidies past and present, gone so far as to openly compare themselves to architects of a contemporary Asiatic police state.

“Reset” in hindsight has claimed one extraordinary achievement for the administration: it has wiped out what once seemed a permanent memory with respect to U.S.-Russian relations. As Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Washington bureau chief of RTVi television network and a former advisor to Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky, has written recently, there is no surprise in the fact that the avalanche of American concessions to the Kremlin has not precipitated a similar outpouring of generosity and good will by the latter, only smirking satisfaction. “Repressive regimes view concessions as a sign of weakness,” wrote Kara-Murza, “not a cause for reciprocity. Why would a government that is dishonest and aggressive to its own citizens behave like a noble and trustworthy partner on the world stage?”

This is lesson that should have been learned twenty years ago, after Reagan successfully put pressure on Gorbachev about Soviet political prisoners while also getting down to business on nonproliferation and arms reduction. It is not an indication of statesmanship or geopolitical maturity, pace Michael McFaul, to be unable to hold these two separate concepts in one’s head at the same time. The administration’s failure is only heightened by historical circumstance. There is no ideological superstructure or totalitarian stranglehold on culture in today’s Russia. Why, then, should Putin and his improvisatory siloviki find themselves the easy beneficiaries of a fire sale of Western principles that managed to make it through a far more challenging epoch?