The Washington Post's coverage of Russia in December was dominated by the U.S. Senate ratification of the New START treaty.
On December 1, Will Englund reported on the interview that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave to CNN's Larry King in which Putin warned that the failure to ratify the treaty will force Russia to expand and update its nuclear arsenal. Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev didn't mention the ratification of the treaty in his annual state-of-the-nation address, but as Kathy Lally wrote the same day, he cautioned that a new arms race could be triggered by the inability to reach an agreement on missile defense cooperation in Europe.
On December 2, the creme of the GOP foreign policy establishment, former Secretaries of State for the past five Republican administrations — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Colin Powell — urged the Senate to ratify the treaty. Although the authors of the op-ed diplomatically pointed out that they were not making recommendations about "the exact timimg" of the Senate vote, they nevertheless stressed that after having "had initial questions about New START" themselves, they now believed that the "administration officials have provided reasonable answers." And in a slighly veiled reference to the charged atmosphere of the Senate deliberations, they encouraged Senators to focus on "national security" when debating the treaty.
Jim Hoagland came out of his semi-retirement to argue, on December 10, that the treaty's benefits "outweigh its shortcomings." Hoagland went as far as to claim that "New START doesn't go far enough" and called for further U.S.-Russia-led nuclear arms control negotiations possibly involving China, France, Britain, India, and Pakistan.
A December 17 editorial called the ratification of New START an "unfinished business in Congress" and reiterated the Post's support for the treaty.
The only dissenting vote was provided by George Will. Will's criticism of the treaty wasn't novel, much less original: all he did was to parrot the arguments of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) whom Will interviewed over the phone. It appears, however, that the treaty itself wasn't the primary reason Will had penned his opus; rather, he used the opportunity to display, yet again, his rabid Russophobia. Otherwise, it's hard to understand why a piece supposedly devoted to nuclear arms control was interspersed with the lines like this:
"Russia needs psychotherapy. It longs to be treated as what it no longer is, a superpower…"
"…Russia is a perverse miracle of arrested development. It is receding because it still has an essentially hunter-gatherer economy…Aside from vodka, what Russian-manufactured export matters?"
I won't question Will's expertise in Russian vodka: he sounds like he knows the subject quite well. But has it occurred to him that Russia is a major supplier of uranium fuel for U.S. nuclear power stations? Or, if this topic is too complicated, has Will at least heard about the AK-47?
It was Mary Beth Sheridan who did the heavy lifting of describing the twists and turns of the New START ratification saga. She began on December 12 by listing all the challenges posed to the Obama administration by the treaty's critics. On December 15, Sheridan and Felicia Sonmez reported on the Senate vote to open debate on the treaty. Two days later, Sheridan pointed to the growing anger among Senate Republicans at the administration's attempts to bring other pieces of legislation — in addition to New START — to the lame-duck session of the Senate, the anger that was complicating the ratification process itself. Sheridan's December 19 piece desribed a letter that President Obama sent to the Senate in which he pledged to fully develop a U.S. missile defense system in Europe, something that some Senate Republicans have asked him to do as a condition of their support of the treaty. The same day, Sheridan reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he would vote against the treaty.
On December 21, Sheridan teamed up with Sonmez and William Branigin to describe the crucial precedural vote in the Senate to close debate and proceed to a final vote. The same day, Sheridan published a compressed factsheet outlining major features of the treaty along with some arguments of the treaty's critics ("New START for Dummies", so to speak). Finally, on December 22, just hours after the Senate vote, Sheridan and Branigin reported that the New START treaty has been ratified "by a vote of 71 to 26, easily clearing the threshold of two-third of senators..." Sheridan has wrapped up her excellent job with a fascinating piece describing the sequence of behind-the scene actions, by President Obama and senior members of his Cabinet, to ensure the president's major foreign policy victory.
There was some quick reaction to the event. Robert Kagan hailed the ratification as a demonstration of national unity "to those who are finding themselves once again in need of a strong and capable United States." He also argued that the ratification of the treaty would help the U.S. to pressure Russia on "continued illegal occupation of Georgia" and "its brutal treatment of internal dissent." Hmm. OK.
Charles Krauthammer was unhappy with New START because it re-established "the link between offensive and defensive weaponry", the link whose destruction, by withdrawal from the ABM treaty, Krauthammer considers "one of the great achievements" of the Bush administration. (I wonder which other actions of the Bush administration Krauthammer considers as its "great achievents.")
Walter Pincus predicted that the Senate Republicans will begin actively pressing the administration on the issue of what he called "Russia's overwhelming advantage in tactical nuclear weapons."
Another topic featuring prominently in the Post's coverage of Russia in December has been the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. (I emphasize this "and" as the Post's authors almost never acknowledge the fact that Khodorkovsky has a co-defendant. One can only guess why a guy with a typical Russian surname — serving the same term as Khodorkovsky and accused exactly in the same crimes — fails to attract the attention of the Post's crowd.) On December 15, Lally wrote about a letter sent to President Medvedev by more than 50 world leaders and intellectuals, in which they suggested that "if Khodorkovsky is convicted yet again and Magnitsky's case goes unpursued, the world's confidence in Russia's commitment to justice will suffer." The same day, Lally reported that the reading of the trial verdict was posponed until December 27. On December 30, Lally described the judge's decision to sentence Khodorkovsky to 14 years in jail as a sing that "Prime Minister Vladimir Putin intends to keep a firm grip on power and is unwilling to bend to American and European concerns about the quality of Russian justice."
Reacting to the guilty verdict, a predictably harsh editorial repeated the usual nonsense about Khodorkovsky ("the price of…funding of liberal political parties and civil society groups is seven years…in a Siberian prison camp") and called to "punish" Russia in general and Putin personally by withdrawing U.S. support for Russia's membership in WTO and keeping on the books the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
On December 30, Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, suggested (but of course!) "denying visas to those responsible for Khodorkovsky's prosecution and freezing their foreign accounts." Poor Judge Danilkin: he will now have to keep his money in Moscow and cancel a long-planned vacation in the U.S!