A good friend from St. Petersburg has called and, referring to my appearance on Peter Lavelle's "CrossTalk" show, asked, half-jokingly:
"All right, when will you guys have a Russian lobby as good as the Jewish?"
I replied, half-seriously:
"Not in my lifetime."
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm a relatively young man and plan to live a long life. Yet, honestly, I don't expect to see a functioning pro-Russian lobby in the U.S. as efficient as the pro-Israel any time soon. Not even close.
That said, let's state the obvious: the power of a foreign lobby should match, first and foremost, its objectives. Sure, these AIPAC guys are great, but you also should consider what they are expected to deliver, year in and year out. Check it out: in addition to unconditional security guarantees, the U.S. provides Israel with about $3 billion per year in direct aid (roughly one-sixth of the total U.S. foreign aid budget). Besides, Israel enjoys "unwavering" diplomatic support: over the past few decades, the U.S. has vetoed more than 40 of the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions critical of Israel.
Russia's relationship with the U.S. is completely different. Russia simply doesn't need the things that Israel does: financial aid (Russia has the third-largest currency reserves in the world), security guarantees (it has one of the world's two largest nuclear weapon arsenals), or veto power in the U.N.S.C. (it has its own).
This is not to say that Russia doesn't need a lobby in the U.S. However, given the current character of U.S.-Russia relations — and what Moscow supposedly "wants" from the U.S. government — the agenda for such a lobby would be quite moderate. A number of potential issues to consider are as follows.
The New START treaty. Just signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in Prague, the treaty faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate. Much noise (especially in Russia) was made out of the fact that the Democrats have recently lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and now allegedly need not 7, but 8 Senate Republicans to support the ratification of the treaty. This is nonsense: both the support for the treaty and the opposition to it are bipartisan. Notwithstanding the grumbling by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Joe Lieberman (I-C T) (whom folks in Russia stubbornly continue calling a Democrat) that Russia was given too many "concessions", there is a broad consensus in the Senate that the START treaty serves U.S. national interests. For as long as the leading Republican foreign policy guru in the Senate, Sen. Richard Lugar (IN), supports the treaty — and he does — ratification of START is possible. Yet the White House could obviously use some help in bringing aboard a few undecided Senators worried about "concessions."
The so-called 123 Agreement (a.k.a. the U.S.-Russia Agreement for Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy). Signed by the Bush administration in 2008, it was never submitted to Congress. True, the fate of the Agreement is superficially tied to Russia's cooperation on Iran, and the resistance to the Agreement in Congress is strong. And yet, in its core, this is a "trade" agreement providing American companies with entry into the lucrative Russian nuclear energy market. Many legislators could become sensitive to this argument.
Lately, I've changed my mind and now believe that the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment is only a distraction and there is no reason to fight for its repeal. The real target should be Russia's membership in the WTO — if Moscow really wants it (I have certain doubts here). Once Russia's in, Congress will repeal the amendment by itself. And not because of pro-Russian lobbying, but due to the pressure from multiple domestic business interests willing to take advantage of Russia accession to the WTO.
Instead, a pro-Russian lobby could initiate efforts to include Russia into the Visa Waiver Program that would allow its citizens to travel to the United States for tourism and business without obtaining a B1 visa. Russian-speaking Americans are rapidly becoming a major ethnic group in the U.S. (especially in large metropolitan areas), increasing along the way the volume of transatlantic business and people-to-people travel. Getting Russia into the Program won't be easy and will take years to achieve, but it will definitely have a real positive impact on lives of many Russian-Americans. Besides, fighting for this goal has a chance of uniting people of different ethnicities and ideological beliefs within the Russian-speaking community.
What people caring about the state of U.S.-Russia relations should realize is that the notorious "reset" is not a law and not even an officially declared U.S. foreign policy objective. It's a political trend adopted by the current administration that may well be thrown away by the next, most likely Republican, president. To preserve the spirit and the current momentum of the "reset", it should be continuously promoted within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. This is what a pro-Russian lobby in the United States should be doing.
In other words, the "reset" needs a charger, and the pro-Russian lobby should play the role of this charger.
(I shared this idea with my wife, and she told me that the current handling of U.S.-Russia relations reminds her of cooking of a Thanksgiving turkey: you put the turkey in the oven and then forget about it for hours while hoping that the "product" will turn out well. Instead, U.S.-Russia relations should be handled as risotto, when you always keep your eye on the pot while constantly stirring the rice.)