Are We Trying To Lose Russia Again?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Russia is back in the focus of U.S. media. Needless to say, the coverage is mostly negative: as I wrote before, only “bad” news about Russia can spark excitement in American media circles.

The burst of interest in all things Russian was triggered by the recent announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was returning to the Kremlin next spring. An op-ed in Los Angeles Times — under the screaming headline “Watch out for Putin” — promptly suggested that Russia was headed “for a dead end.” Sensing the opportune moment, Kathy Lally of The Washington Post dutifully manufactured a new episode for the endless series “Russia clamps down on opposition.” She followed up with a piece describing how Russian politicians are using “dirty tricks” ahead of the State Duma elections – apparently on the assumption that this practice is unique for Russia.

Then, in a brilliant display of black humor, on Halloween, the FBI released videos related to the “Operation Ghost Stories.” Remember the counterintelligence masterpiece that resulted in busting the alleged Russian “spy ring” last summer? Unfortunately, when compared to the high-definition TV horror stuff one could watch on Halloween, the FBI production looks particularly bleak. Most of the videos are filled with colorless, ghost-looking silhouettes endlessly traveling long underpasses and tirelessly exchanging brown-paper shopping bags. As if suspecting that the public would have hard time to remember what the “Operation Ghost Stories” was all about, the producer included one more piece of counterintelligence art, the one allegedly featuring the infamous Anna Chapman. In this video staged in a coffee shop in New York, Chapman — who, due to the poor quality of the recording, doesn’t even look redheaded, save for red-hot — meets with an “undercover agent.”

And just to remind us that Russian spying in the U.S. is alive and well – even with Ms. Chapman back in Moscow – the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive told Congress that Russia’s cyber-economic espionage represents a growing threat to U.S. national interests.

Not spooked yet? Then read about the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency claiming that foreign scientists had helped Iran develop technology necessary to build nuclear weapons. And who these “foreign scientists” were? Duh! The Post identified one Vyacheslav Danilenko, “a former Soviet nuclear scientist,” as the major culprit. (For the record: Mr. Danilenko strongly denied the accusation of being “farther of the Iranian nuclear bomb.”)

Given the circumstances, could American pundits and politicians stay away from the fray? You bet. Thus, on Oct. 25, The Heritage Foundation hosted a day-long event under the banner “The Risks of the Reset.” One could easily dismiss the Heritage happening as yet another anti-Russian “шабаш” if not for the fact that it was blessed with the appearance of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio).

It’s quite remarkable that in the middle of contentious bi-partisan negotiations on spending cuts, Speaker Boehner could find time for attending a mundane expert gathering at a think tank. It’s also puzzling that he – as someone not known for interest in foreign policy issues, including U.S.-Russia relations — would give a speech that stopped short of calling for a new Cold War on Russia. On the other hand, if castigating the Obama administration’s “reset” policy was indeed Boehner’s objective, his choice of The Heritage event was very appropriate: one of the Foundation’s own experts on Russia has recently called the “reset” a “Cold War restart.”

A trivial explanation of the criticism of the Obama administration’s Russia policy would be that with the 2012 presidential and congressional elections in mind, the Republicans are trying to deprive the president of one of his most obvious foreign policy successes. From this point of view, Boehner’s escapades against the “reset” could be viewed as simply a mandatory contribution to the election-campaign Obama bashing. Not surprisingly, Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, has, too, made the “reset” the primary target of his attacks at the administration foreign policy. In a recent interview, Romney insisted that “[the ‘reset’] has to end.”

But perhaps, Boehner’s speech at The Heritage served yet another purpose. The Speaker argued that the Obama administration should link its approval for Russia’s admission in the WTO to a border dispute between Russia and Georgia stemming from the 2008 military conflict between the two countries. Here is what he said precisely:

The administration should resolve this stalemate in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of Georgia. Then – and only then – will movement on the WTO question be worth considering.”

This is a strange statement. Boehner was certainly aware at the time of his speech that the U.S. had already acquiesced to Russia’s WTO entry – and that such decisions are made by the president, not Congress, anyway. What is a congressional responsibility, though, is to graduate Russia from the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War era anachronism depriving Russia of normal trade relations with the U.S. However, once Russia is in the WTO – and now, this looks imminent – the burden will be on Congress to repeal the amendment; otherwise, the lack of normal trade relation status with Russia will hurt U.S. companies. And here Boehner’s problem lies: he seems to be incapable of overcoming strong opposition in Congress – headed by the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — to the amendment's repeal. By simultaneously attacking Russia and Obama’s “reset” policy, Boehner is creating an “ideological” basis to justify Congress’ unwillingness to defend vital U.S. economic interests.

So far, the Obama administration has refused to apologize for its Russia policy. During the recent meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Honolulu, Obama hailed the successes of the “reset.” Also, by creating a State Department secret list of Russian officials whose entry in the U.S. is banned, the administration has essentially neutralized the so-called Cardin bill, whose negative effects on U.S.-Russia relations, if adopted by the Senate, would be hard to underestimate. Yet, responding to the frequent criticism that the benefits of the “reset” came at a price of Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation, the White House has indicated that it’s shifting the focus of its Russia policy on human rights issues.

This latest twist is not without peril. Obama must know that nothing can poison the Washington-Moscow dialogue faster than his attempt to lecture the Russian president, whoever he is, on human rights. It’s the Republicans who, at the moment, have nothing to lose from “losing Russia.” In contrast, Obama needs Russia to advance America’s national interests. Especially, if he’ll succeed in becoming a two-term president.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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6 Responses to Are We Trying To Lose Russia Again?

  1. Thanks Eugene.
    If I offhand correctly recall, Obama (as stated in a news report) recently took a diplomatic/pragmatic approach to supporting the idea of Russia in the WTO, by saying that it serves to bring that country closer to the West, in a way that serves to further encourage reforms.
    If so, that’s a more logical position in contrast to that of an establishment
    “realist”, who simply/inaccurately characterized Russia’s position on Iran as part of a sticking it to the West mindset (America in particular).

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    I think that supporting Russia’s WTO bid is very “realistic” foreign policy approach, given that many U.S. companies actively lobby for that.
    What I can’t understand is Congress’ stubborn refusal to part with JV — especially now that Russia is almost there.
    FYI: I’m in the process of moving this blog to a different provider (WordPress). Given my total lack of understanding of the process, the transition may turn ugly…
    If anything happens, remember: I’ll be back:)

  3. Good luck on the changeover Eugene. Meantime, I know your RBTH connection.
    I’m a fan of multiple listings:
    On JV, there continues to be some outdated thinking. For example, there’s a half hour infomercial promoting the saving of Jews from the former USSR (by encouraging their leaving that space) – with an emphasis on Russia. Never mind the many FSU folks who since 2000 have returned from Israel to Russia.
    I saw that crap on TV the other night at my gym. It usually airs during the least viewed of time slots. Without asking if anyone was watching it, I made it a point to change the channel to something comparatively better – Beavis and Butthead.
    So there’s no misunderstanding, I’m not against a sincere raising of money for folks who can’t afford to travel. That stance isn’t to be confused with the aforementioned crap.

  4. Alex says:

    Good reading, Eugene, thanks – enjoyed it.
    I should write to these FBI guys personally 🙂 – they don’t even know how easy it is to determine if one deals with Russian Mafia or KGB… – the Russian Mafia do not smile. Ever. And there was not a single smiling face on the “spy” photos 🙂 . So..
    With Cardin Bill – it is so touching to see how modern American Democrats care about Russia and personally want to fight against “..the conspiracy to defraud the Russian
    Federation of taxes on corporate profits”. It is a pity we did not see such enthusiasm from them during EBN/Chubais privatization “campaign”.

  5. Eugene says:

    Hi Alex,
    It’s been a while…I guess rumors of our highly successful Black Friday made you get interested in American politics again:)
    Now, I have to admit — until someone points it to me — that blaming Republicans for the Cardin Bill is unfair, for Cardin is a Democrat. That said, his passivity since the last summer is telling. I strongly suspect that the White House quietly asked him to shut up and not complicate the Boss’ life even more. Given the fact that Cardin is up for re-election in 2012, he doesn’t really need problems with the WH.
    As for the FBI, I’m really pissed off with the fact that this pathetic “secret agent” even didn’t buy Anya a cup of coffee. And this is after all the bucks we shoveled upon our security services…Outrageous!
    Take care,

  6. Alex says:

    I’ve never lost interest in our “politics” 🙂 It is just that what I have been interested in, does not always intersect with the mainstream.

    I totally share your frustration with FBI – I can offer them a basic training in coffee-drinking with beautiful women (if that what you meant: ) )

    See you in your new blog – I think I still have one with WordPress too : )


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