Russia Bulletin, Issue 2

February 3, 2012

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is the second in a proposed biweekly series of reports and analyses on important developments in Russia and in U.S.-Russia relations.

In these bulletins we attempt to look behind, and more deeply into, the issues of the day, suffused as these often are by hyperbole or rhetorical excess on both sides.

It is self-evident that these are interesting times indeed for the bilateral relationship. In the aftermath of the December parliamentary elections in Russia, and as a prologue to the presidential election in March, we see the protests in the streets of Moscow and other cities. Aspects of President Obama's cornerstone "reset" policy on Russia, including continuing commitments to bilateral cooperation on arms control will doubtless come into play in our own elections in November. The architect of that administration policy, Michael McFaul, has just taken up residence at Spaso House as the new U.S. Ambassador. On the foreign policy side of the ledger, deep divisions persist over how to deal with Iran and are emerging over Syria.


First, let us put the matter of U.S.-Russia dialogue on Iran in some recent historical context: in general, Russia has followed a course that may be considered supportive even by Russoskeptics in Washington. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin went along with the Clinton administration's ban on all arms sales to Iran. Though later repudiated by President Putin, the course of cooperation was reestablished between Obama and Medvedev when the latter supported more stringent sanctions on Iran and suspended arms sales once more, all under the vaunted "reset." Some resetting of the reset now looms, however, as Russia fears that pressures from U.S., allies Israel and Saudi Arabia may push the United States into military action against Iran, which would retaliate (presumably militarily) and also by blocking the Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran, through which 35 percent of the world's oil supply passes."1

What is all too often ignored in the Western media is that Russia has no strategic ambition to see a nuclear-armed Iran; but Russia, understandably, takes a broader view. As Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the influential and independent Moscow-based think tank, Institute of Near Eastern Studies, said in a recent Christian Science Monitor article:

"The West has no credibility here anymore. Iran is a nearby neighbor for Russia, and a potentially dangerous one. We don't want it to get nuclear weapons, but at the same time we fear that war would engulf the region in turmoil and spread to Russian territory in the North Caucasus…..the view is that Russia must chart its own course based ion its own interests. If we don't look out for ourselves, who will?"2

Russia continues to press Tehran on the need to dispel concerns about its nuclear program, but points out that:

  • Iran has consistently informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of its uranium enrichment activity, including the facility under construction near Qom that is a source of neuralgia for the IAEA.
  • All nuclear material at Qom is under IAEA supervision.

  • The current level of enrichment is to the 20 percent level, far below the 90 percent necessary for nuclear weapon capability.

In sum, Russia is urging restraint. In the words of a recent Foreign Ministry statement:

"We confirm that any problems related to the Iranian nuclear program must be resolved exclusively through negotiations and the mutually respected dialogue on the basis of gradual and reciprocal steps……We are prepared to continue further maximal assistance to this process, in particular in the course of a plan for the restoration of confidence in the Iranian nuclear program suggested by Russia."

Russia's position has been more vividly put by the foreign minister himself. On January 18, Sergey Lavrov bluntly described any possible military action against Iran as a "catastrophe," potentially resulting in extended regional conflict and in mass refugee flows from Iran.

Whatever the tone, the important point is that the official Moscow position is not substantially different from that of a growing number of distinguished American voices-none of whom can exactly be dubbed Iran apologists. From a December 30, 2011 op-ed in the Washington Post by former Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering (the latter an ambassador to Russia in the 1990s):

"Without that patient search for different ways to deal with Tehran, Washington will be stuck with a policy that will not change Iran's practices or its regime and could lead to a catastrophic war."

From Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing for The Daily Beast:

"As Western leaders back Iran into a corner and as they are locking themselves into a war policy they haven't seriously contemplated and don't really want, now is the time to offer a deal."

And from General Michael Hayden, head of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush:

"When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent-an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret."

Finally, one cannot resist throwing in the terse assessment of attacking Iran offered by none other than Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, in June 2011:

"silliest idea I've ever heard."

Russian Elections

The election seasons in Russia, and specifically the protests since the December parliamentary round, have figured prominently in the Western media, the predominant themes being the "rejection" of Putin/Medvedev's United Russia and the welcome sight of nascent civil society taking to the streets in indignation at what may have been a fraudulent election. Where to begin? First, a few points of information: as previously observed, "democratic" elections in the West have been won with less than 50 percent of the vote; the demonstrations in Moscow have been freely allowed, with no Tiananmen Square-style draconian crackdown; and, if there has been an election in post-Soviet Russia that could truly be dubbed "fraudulent," it was surely the reelection of the pro-West "reformer" in chief, Boris Yeltsin, in 1996.

Let us focus rather on two facets of the protest movement in Russia. First, the matter of who is in fact turning out? On January 29, a front-page article in The New York Times ("Russian Liberals Growing Uneasy With Alliances") pointed to the downright nasty collection of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and ultranationalists who lurk under the skirts of the "democratic" protest movement. Nor does this seem to be simply a matter of a few insalubrious characters taking advantage of an unwilling host; the Times piece points specifically to:

"Alexei Navalny, the anticorruption crusader who is the undisputed leader of the movement. In the past, he has espoused nationalist views, particularly on immigration and the volatile, mostly Muslim North Caucasus region, that make his more liberal supporters perspire."

Interestingly, the same Times article quotes Prime Minister Putin thus:

"I am deeply convinced that attempts to propagate the idea of building a Russian 'national' mono-ethnic state contradict all of our thousand-year history"3

Second, in the last Russia Bulletin we raised the matter of Golos, the election watchdog organization that has received generous support from the West. The funding trail for Golos, with specific amounts and sources, is murkily difficult to penetrate; but the commitment to the organization is patent. The U.S. department of State's "Diplomacy in Action" paper in 2006 says: "To promote free and fair elections, the United States continued to provide programmatic and technical support to a Russian watchdog organization…..". Though not named, this is Golos ["Voice"].

In the same year, a nongovernmental Russian source—a monitor of the monitors, as it were, reported that, according to its own fact sheet, there were USAID activities "to enhance the organizational capacity of democratically oriented political parties [in Russia] and to encourage and intensify coalition-building efforts for the 2007-2008 elections". The support for Golos, from both the public purse and private foundations, endures, and begs several questions, not least that of how does a U.S. government agency determine the definition of a "democratically oriented" political party in Russia? Would we welcome a similar intrusion?

It should be noted that the State Department document references other programs ongoing in Russia. These embrace such basic issues as: support for a network of lawyers advising trade unions on labor contract issues; consultation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to train prosecutors and police on how to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases; and work with Internal Affairs on developing an effective witness protection program. However one may view these, there is one important difference from the Golos case, in that they constitute a genuinely cooperative, government-to-government process.

Finally, an interesting coda to the question of the conduct and outcome of the Russian elections, and our hortatory role therein: in the current edition of The New York Review of Books [2.23.12], Elizabeth Drew writes of our own upcoming date with the polling booth:

"The combination of broadscale, coordinated efforts underway to manipulate the election and the previously banned unlimited amounts of unaccountable money from private or corporate interests involved in those efforts threatens the democratic process for picking a president. The assumptions underlying that process—that there is a right to vote, that the system for nominating and electing a president is essentially fair—are at serious risk".

It is not only the egregious excesses of the "Super PACs" that Drew invokes, but the widespread practices in many states actually to obstruct the voting rights of low-income individuals and immigrants. Her article is titled: "Can We Have a Democratic Election?"

Perhaps we should send for Golos.

Jackson-Vanik and U.S.-Russia Trade

We've spoken of this before: the superannuated Cold War legislative relic that punished the Soviet Union for [a] being a non-free market economy and [b] restricting Jewish emigration. While both of these causes for sanction have manifestly disappeared (quite apart that the punitive measures now illogically apply to a different country, Russia) the Jackson-Vanik Amendment remains on the books, for unabashedly political, rather than economic reasons. What is remarkable here is that everyone on the political spectrum, from those to the left of the White House to arch-Cold warrior Richard Perle, agrees that Jackson-Vanik should be consigned to the rubbish heap of history. In one of the few references to Russia in his January 25 State of the Union address, President Obama called for "permanent normal trade relations with Russia," adding:

"This Congress should make sure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing finance or new markets like Russia."

So why the delay in doing the right thing? Ever alert to the possibilities for domestic political point scoring, some members of Congress are intent on playing the human rights card at Russia's expense. Thus, Jackson-Vanik repeal may be held hostage to a replacement law, as it were. This would be the Magnitsky Law, and would impose travel bans on Russian officials suspected of involvement in the mysterious death in prison of human rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. While one obviously hopes that this will be fully investigated-in, by, and for Russia-such questions arise as: Who are these officials? How wide is the net? And just a thought: if our elected representatives are thus stirred by human rights issues and their relation to trade, perhaps they should look into the case of Mr. Liu Xiaobo and seek similar sanctions on Chinese officials.

In the end, Jackson-Vanik should be, and is, an economic, not a political issue. For this reason, the merits of the case must be argued by the business community and not be left entirely to our sage Congress. The U.S.-Russia Business Council has taken a welcome lead, enlisting such others as the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a full-court press to put the issue before the key Congressional committees.


1 Skeptics argue that such a move would only serve to cripple Iran's own oil exports, but it seems at least plausible that as a retaliation for attack, all logical, economically grounded bets would be off.
2 This despite the (cynical) observation that disruption of Iranian and Gulf oil flow might benefit Russia as a major oil producer, at least in the short to medium term!
3 For this, part of one of a series of three articles recently published by Putin, he was criticized by the liberal opposition for premature campaigning!