It’s Time to Call Out Russia

President Obama needs to respond to the Kremlin’s nasty behavior

Uncategorized August 15, 2013 0

It’s Time to Call Out Russia President Obama needs to respond to the Kremlin’s nasty behavior President Obama decided to cancel a one-on-one meeting...

It’s Time to Call Out Russia

President Obama needs to respond to the Kremlin’s nasty behavior

President Obama decided to cancel a one-on-one meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin next month.He canceled for a host of reasons, not the least of which is Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum.Nevertheless, there is a rising chorus of foreign policy realists in Washington who are alarmed by the decision. They’re wrong — Russia has taken a turn for the worse, and it’s time for the President to issue more gestures of contempt.

When Barack Obama came into office in 2009, American relations with Russia were at a low point. George W. Bush began his first term saying he saw into Putin’s soul, but ended his second with a bitter disagreement over Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia after Georgian troops killed Russian soldiers in South Ossetia. The “reset” policy, which Obama hoped would restore or, at the very least, de-escalate tensions, has not worked out as well as its authors hoped (though it is often unfairly maligned — relations with Russia are still not as bad as they were at the end of 2008).

Even so, Obama and President Medvedev seemed to have a polite, if not warm, rapport at first. But when Putin came back into the presidency in May of 2012, that began to change.

Actually, the change happened earlier, in December of 2011. That was when Putin’s party, United Russia, lost its supermajority in Russia’s parliament. The protests that resulted sparked an outpouring of state violence against otherwise peaceful marchers, all for the crime of opposing a return of Putin to lead Russia.

In the U.S., the crackdown led to an odd congruence of commentary: Both human rights groups and conservatives condemned Russia in equally strong terms (culminating in Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney calling Russia “our biggest geopolitical foe” in March of 2012).

Romney’s rhetoric was a bit florid, but it is a common trope for America’s political class. Russia is a convenient, almost comfortable opponent. The Cold War is still remembered fondly in Washington, and its instinctive Russophobia can prompt an understandable pushback from those who yearn for a more balanced, longer-term view. I’ve fallen for it myself, having argued for renewed ties with Moscow after Putin’s reelection and for the normalization of trade relations after Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization. Russia and America do not see eye to eye on a number of issues, I argued, but we do have shared interests that should be pursued.

But something has changed in Moscow. The first spark was the ridiculous spectacle of Pussy Riot being put on trial for dancing in a church. In September of 2012, Russia unceremoniously booted USAID from the country, claiming the agency’s human rights activities “undermine sovereignty.” The next month Russia withdrew from the Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction Initiative, which had successfully dismantled and safeguarded thousands of decrepit nuclear weapons left unsecured after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In March of 2013, Russia began a vast crackdown on human rights NGOs, claiming they were agents of “foreign influence.” The National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded democracy promotion group, evacuated its staff.

If it has stopped there, Russia’s behavior could perhaps be understandable — maybe. I was in Moscow when Russian police raided Amnesty International in March, and the government’s justifications for it were almost plausible. It’s true, the U.S. would react poorly to a Russian-funded NGO lecturing the government on the Guantanamo prison, on torture and extraordinary rendition, on drone strikes. But it got worse.

Later in March, Russia banned the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which prohibited travel to the U.S. by Russian officials involved in the fatal mistreatment of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky while in jail. While the American law was provocative, it only affected Russian officials. The Russian ban left in limbo hundreds of Russian children who had been slated for adoption in America.

In May of this year, the Russian government claimed to have arrested an American spy under diplomatic cover, Ryan Fogle. Rather than arresting him quietly and exchanging him for a Russian spy, as is customary when spies are caught, Moscow instead invited a film crew from a state-owned TV station, RT, to film his arrest. He was then paraded around on TV and publicly shamed for his activity.

Just one week later, a spokesman for the FSB, Russia’s state security organization (and successor to the KGB), exposed the identity of the CIA station chief in Moscow — a serious breach of protocol.

At the same time, an anti-gay law made its way up from St. Petersburg to become a signed law on July 29, around the same time that the FSB was organizing Edward Snowden’s defection.

Given the last ten months, it is undeniable that Russia, under Putin’s leadership, has become more hostile not only to western values but to western interests as well.Russia has stonewalled any realistic prospect for settling the conflict in Syria at the UN Security Council (the U.S. isn’t perfect on this front, considering its casual disregard of a UN Security Council Resolution that Russia tacitly supported in Libya, but that does not justify Russia’s behavior).

It is easy to single out any one of these issues at random and think it is driving the antagonism between Washington and Moscow, but to do so ignores almost a year of the Kremlin continuously escalating tensions with the White House on a range of issues — nuclear proliferation, Syria, human rights, democratic development, even press freedoms. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an area of foreign policy where cooperation is improving — even on clearly shared interests like counternarcotics or fighting terrorism. Across the board, Russia is rejecting America.

It’s time we return the favor. It would send a powerful message for Obama to call for a different visit with Putin, one where he publicly condemns the Russian president at a joint press conference for his conduct, and announces a U.S. boycott of the Sochi Olympics until press freedoms are restored and American athletes won’t be subjected to the humiliations of the new anti-gay laws. It would be even better if Obama publicly described Putin as a succor of tyrants, accused him of direct complicity in the brutal carnage in Syria, and called on the Russian government to join the civilized countries of the world in looking to end, rather than prolong, the conflict. Obama should also publicly demand that Putin rejoin successful nuclear counterproliferation programs that have reduced the threat of black market nuclear sales and trafficking.

None of this will happen, of course. Despite the Kremlin’s hostile behavior toward Washington, the White House feels it must walk on egg shells around its Russian counterparts. So we’re left with a passive-aggressive meeting cancellation as a substitute for the open condemnation that must accompany Moscow’s provocations. Putin has made it clear he wants little to do with the U.S. Leaders in the U.S. should wake up to it.

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