Dancing with Russia

March 11, 2011 Topic: Arms ControlSecurity Region: Russia

Dancing with Russia

Improving relations with Moscow is all well and good—but not at the expense of U.S. national security.

Vice President Joe Biden, who coined the term “reset” (as in U.S.-Russian relations), is in Moscow. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the day after he met with his “junior consul” President Dmitry Medvedev. After Moscow, Mr. Biden will visit Moldova—a first by a U.S. V.P.

Mr. Biden’s visit focuses on security and business. His ambitious agenda includes: preparations for President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia; a push for a joint missile-defense project; consultation on the Middle East; Russian membership in the WTO; and investment promotion.

On the latter front, Mr. Biden will meet with U.S. and Russian businesspeople, bless a large aircraft deal (the sale of Boeing jets to Aeroflot) and visit Skolkovo High Tech Park.

The Russian government has already kicked in $10 billion for a joint investment fund with Goldman Sachs. President Medvedev believes that knowledge-economy investments are a vital balance to Russia’s commodities-driven exports.

While in Moscow, Mr. Biden is also slated to meet with human-rights activists and opposition leaders and to deliver a speech at Moscow State University.

Мr. Biden has come a long way from the critical views of Russia he held early in the Obama administration. In a 2009 Der Spiegel interview, he said:

They [Russia] have a shrinking population base; they have a withering economy; they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years; they're in a situation where the world is changing before them, and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

Biden then went on to decry what he called Moscow’s energy blackmail of Ukraine and its occupation of Georgia, albeit stating that the United States would not provide Tbilisi with a “physical security guarantee.”

This visit is a good opportunity to take stock of U.S.-Russian relations under the first two years of the Obama presidency. On the one hand, the United States secured an important land route to supply most cargo and troops to NATO forces in Afghanistan. And the administration notes that Russia cast its UN Security Council vote in favor of Iran sanctions and cancelled its sale of S-300 long-range anti-aircraft weapons to Iran. Admittedly, these are welcome steps, but the sanctions are “too little, too late,” unlikely to stop the ayatollahs from getting the bomb. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called for the United States to lift its unilateral sanctions against Iran and is opposing much-needed additional sanctions.

Mr. Biden is in Moscow to discuss the future of the “reset.” Arms control and disarmament is an important part of Obama’s agenda, but “progress” to date has not enhanced American security. The administration points to the New START strategic arms-control agreement as an achievement, but it gave Moscow considerable concessions on nukes in pursuit of its dream—like Global Zero policy of nuclear disarmament . Twenty-six Republican senators voted against it—the only major arms pact to encounter such opposition.

To “get to zero,” the administration is pressing for additional arms-control agreements and a joint missile-defense project for Europe. The inherent dangers of such agreements, if poorly negotiated by this White House, are easy to see. Russia’s massive tactical-nuclear arsenal of over 5,000 missiles, bombs, land mines and torpedoes is the linchpin of its defense. It relies on these weapons to stop a hypothetical NATO attack, deter China in the Far East and defeat a nasty neighbor in a “local” war. In Europe, it has a 20:1 advantage over the United States in tactical nukes.

Moscow has already demanded that the U.S. withdraw its 200 tactical nukes from Europe and permanently dismantle the supporting infrastructure. Meanwhile, Russia will keep its nuclear weapons on its territory, say, in Kaliningrad, where they can threaten NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Is Mr. Biden planning to convince Moscow to take another step down the arms-control alley? It will take lots of carrots to entice the Russian military to agree to a verifiable tactical-nuke treaty that doesn’t include other nuclear powers like China.

Moreover, the joint missile-defense system the administration wants may well give Russian vital knowledge (and a veto) on the NATO missile shield—a bad idea. In fact, some U.S. experts suspect that the administration may use the missile-defense agreement with Moscow to severely curb U.S. global missile defense more broadly.

WTO membership is another tricky area for Mr. Biden. The Obama administration is committed to facilitating Russia’s entry into the WTO, disregarding the abysmal condition of the rule of law in Russia. Intellectual-property-rights violations, agricultural subsidies and the Jackson-Vanick amendment are all additional impediments to Russia’s quick accession to the WTO.

So are Georgia’s concerns over the Russian embargo on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, and the location of the border crossings. In 2008, after a five-day war, Russia occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia, creating two statelets that Moscow now recognizes together with Nicaragua and Nauru.

Finally, there is the issue of the rule of law and human rights. This is where the administration made the least progress in the “reset.” The Obama-Medvedev bilateral commission delegated these issues to a committee chaired by National Security Council Senior Director Dr. Michael McFaul and Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Chief Vladislav Surkov. Human-rights activists point out that the committee has not achieved much. Russian TV remains in the steel grip of the state; peaceful protestors, including prominent politicians, are regularly arrested; and election reform to allow opposition in the Duma is all but nonexistent.

An authoritarian Russia poses a critical test to the Obama administration, even as the Middle East quakes and China rises. Washington’s desire to improve relations with Moscow is understandable, but the White House is cutting American national security a raw deal—and perhaps its principles as well