CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Sept. 8, 2012 – 1:42 p.m.
U.S.-Russia Diplomacy: From ‘Reset’ to Pause
By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff
President Obamaentered office pledging to “reset” America’s troubled relations with Russia. But despite some tangible successes, including a new nuclear arms reduction treaty and increased sanctions on Iran, Democrats on the campaign trail are hardly touting their breakthroughs with Moscow. Indeed, Republicans and their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, have used relations with Russia as one of their few consistent foreign policy attack lines against the White House.
The campaign rhetoric reinforces what has been a reality for months: The once-celebrated reset is over, with Vladimir V. Putin’s recoronation as Russia’s president in May the most visible symbol. New divisions over the Syrian uprising, Russia’s human rights record and missile defense — combined with shifting political circumstances in both the United States and Russia — have soured diplomacy between the two nations.
But overheated rhetoric out of Moscow and Washington aside, the two nations still have an incentive to cooperate on critical security and economic issues, including the Afghanistan War and trade. Beyond the battle for the White House, how Congress balances collaboration on these issues with complaints about Putin’s heavy-handed policies will help determine just how frigid the relationship becomes. Republicans have promised to take a harder line with Russia if they win control of the Senate and the White House, but as GOP Sen.
Now that Russia has joined the World Trade Organization, the renewed tension is playing out in the trade arena. Without legislation to normalize trade relations, U.S. companies are unable to take advantage of eased access to Russian markets. Republicans have urged the White House to lean on Democrats to support the necessary changes. House Ways and Means Chairman
The White House, however, wants to avoid an awkward public debate. “The House leadership was obviously goading Obama to come out and make more statements in support of the legislation,” says Carroll Colley, a Russia analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting company. However, with Putin at Russia’s helm, no politician “wants to step out and advocate anything vis-à-vis Russia” right now, he says.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia program, agrees. “Russia’s just kind of a stinker right now,” Kuchins says, pointing to its widely criticized crackdown on the anti-Putin female punk band Pussy Riot and its continued support of strongman Bashar al-Assad’s bloody war against dissidents in Syria.
Russia’s recent actions have complicated the push in Congress to normalize trade relations, a high priority for both the U.S. business community and the Obama administration. To do so, Congress must remove Russia from a list of countries facing U.S. trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade law. The amendment was intended to punish the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries for restricting Jewish emigration, an issue long since resolved.
On both the right and the left, critics of Russia’s human rights record have insisted that any legislation normalizing trade must include a component to penalize those who have violated human rights in Russia. The enormous anti-Putin political protests last fall and the ensuing government crackdown have only strengthened their hand.
To win the support of such critics, pro-trade House and Senate leaders have agreed to add language from a separate bill, named for the Russian lawyer and anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009. The bill would establish a freeze on the travel and assets of human rights violators from Russia or, in some versions, anywhere in the world. House leaders told the business community it would hold a vote on the trade normalization bill this week, but it’s not clear whether they have enough votes to win passage. The political sensitivity around anything that looks to be supporting Russia and Putin in the heat of campaign season may force a delay until after the election.
‘Where They Park Their Cash’
Russians are eager to gain preferential trade status with the United States, but they’re irate about the language in the Magnitsky bill. The main concern in Moscow, according to Colley, is that Europe might adopt a similar law. “That’s where Russians vacation, and that’s where they park their cash,” he says. “This is a priority for them.”
Colley predicts considerable blowback from Moscow if the Magnitsky language becomes law. “It’s unclear how that will manifest itself,” he says, but he could imagine Russia making life difficult for American citizens who seek visas or for U.S. businesses that operate there.
U.S.-Russia Diplomacy: From ‘Reset’ to Pause
The conflict in Syria is also a “big, big variable” in U.S. relations with Russia, Kuchins says. Members of Congress have, through various bills, blasted Russia’s continued support of Assad. For example, both chambers included language in their fiscal 2013 defense authorization bills that would bar funding for additional U.S. military purchases of Russian-made Rosoboronexport helicopters, which are used in Afghanistan, because that arms manufacturer also sells attack helicopters to the Assad regime.
One House-passed amendment to the fiscal 2013 Defense appropriations bill would go so far as to prohibit funds for nuclear nonproliferation activities with Russia unless Moscow demonstrates that it has worked to reduce weapons proliferation.
And after a short lull, missile defense is raising hackles in both capitals. The Obama administration tamped down a long-running dispute with Moscow on the subject when it announced, in 2009, alterations to U.S. plans for an anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe. In 2010, NATO kicked off talks with Russia on potential areas of cooperation on missile defense. Those talks, however, have stalled, and Russian saber rattling has increased; in recent months, Kremlin officials have publicly threatened to junk the New START pact and take military action if they don’t get their way.
In the United States, Republicans have made clear that missile defense is one of their priorities. The House in July passed an amendment to the defense policy bill that would prohibit funds from being used to share with Russia classified information about missile defense systems. Even if Obama is elected to another term, he may not have much flexibility in dealing with missile defense, given how closely GOP lawmakers are watching the issue. And if Republicans take over the White House, heightened confrontation with Russia on missile defense is a near-certainty.
Despite the rising tensions, Obama’s approach to Russia “resulted in a number of agreements that served U.S. foreign and national security policy” over the past three years, Kuchins says. These include New START, a pact creating NATO transit corridors to Afghanistan through Russia and Moscow’s acquiescence to a strict new set of United Nations sanctions against Iran.
Those sanctions have yet to deter Iran from continuing its nuclear enrichment program. But as part of the “P5 plus one” — the group comprising the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — Russia remains an active player in efforts to resolve the standoff diplomatically.
Also, Russia has a major incentive to help stabilize Afghanistan — which is more or less in its backyard — as NATO troops withdraw over the next two years.
And even though Republican congressional opposition makes new arms control agreements in the next few years unlikely, GOP lawmakers have signaled that, should they take control of Congress and the White House, they aren’t particularly interested in curbing existing treaties. Under those pacts, Russia and the United States continue to work together to destroy and safeguard nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The agreement, which has been extended before, expires in 2013. Lugar says that “a good number of other deadly weapons of mass destruction” — which the United States is ready to help Russia destroy — remains.
He worries that the increasingly heated rhetoric between Washington and Moscow could hamper such cooperation. Quoting retired diplomat Thomas R. Pickering, Lugar notes that the two countries have “been sort of kicking each other in the shins” in recent months. “The problem is, if there is too much kicking in the shins and so forth, people become unhappy with each other,” he says.
“Taking the perspective of the safety of the American people or the safety of the world, we better move past that,” Lugar adds. “The missiles we saw being cut up are not theoretical.”
U.S.-Russia Diplomacy: From ‘Reset’ to Pause
FOR FURTHER READING:
Fiscal 2013 Defense appropriations (