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.”