No Free Lunches in Moscow for Rice

No Free Lunches in Moscow for Rice

A Russian journalist's perspective of Secretary Rice’s upcoming visit to his country.


MOSCOW, Russia

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lands in Russia this week, she should keep in mind Russian President Vladimir Putin's folksy illustration of a basic foreign-policy precept: "You get in the yard, a candy in your hand. Somebody asks you to share it with him. But you hold the candy tightly in the sweaty little fist inquiring what you would get in turn." Putin made this comment in May while explaining to reporters the reason why Russia was unwilling to ratify a broad energy deal with the European Union, but the impulse to grasp tightly onto sovereign interests drives all international relations, including that issue foremost on Rice's agenda: the Iranian nuclear program.


The logic that Russia should get something before it makes concessions to the West is very popular here and touches on a long-held sensitivity about Washington shortchanging Moscow-though that sensitivity appears to be scarcely appreciated in much of Washington. Mikhail Margelov, head of the Senate International relations Committee, for instance, complained that Moscow had not "demanded the West to make any commitments" either when the Warsaw Treaty broke down or the Berlin wall collapsed. Russia's accession to Group of 7 in late 1990s was believed to be a result of Moscow's turning a blind eye on NATO's enlargement to the East.

Now, with Washington focused on recruiting international cooperation on Iran, Russia is preoccupied with a potential new wave of NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine. According to polls, most Russians still consider the alliance to be hostile to their country. And NATO is already present in the Baltic states, Central Asia and closing in on Russian borders. Very few people here believe that an eventual enlargement would bring Russia more predictable neighbors, as Polish Minister of Defense Radoslaw Sikorski has sanguinely suggested.

Meanwhile, Tbilisi has spilled oil on the fire. It has, in effect, "signed itself up" with the alliance, even though it has yet to be invited. Moscow can't be happy with Washington's support of Mikhail Saakashvili and courting of Polish authorities, especially since Warsaw has reportedly assented to be part of a missile shield seen as highly controversial in Moscow. To crown these concerns, the Bush Administration's new National Security Strategy and the National Space Strategy are hardly welcomed in Moscow because of their seemingly unilateral approach to international security and stability.

And Washington routinely delivers its rebuke to Moscow on human rights violations and lack of rule of law, despite Washington's own loss of credibility in these areas. So you have Russian lawmakers publicly and bitterly discussing the Abu Graib scandal, CIA rendition flights, etc.

Russia is no longer the loser of the Cold War, supplicating for bread on its knees, as it was in 1990s. Russia wants and believes it can be a partner doing business on equal terms with the United States. Indeed, Secretary Rice should keep in mind that both countries certainly have long lists of concessions (that each government is gripping in its "sweaty little fist") to offer to each other. Even symbolic gestures may turn into good bargaining chips.

For example, a move by Washington's to approve Moscow's WTO bid would help revitalize the recently strained bilateral relations. The United States has also promised to reverse the Jackson-Vanik Amendment more often than it has pledged to bury the Cold War. It's still there. Washington pushed hard to get Moscow onboard in its struggle with global terror, and yet Ilyas Akhmadov, who is wanted in Russia, was given political exile in the United States.

Nobody can deny that America has the right to make friends with whatever country it deems necessary-be it Georgia or Ukraine. But Russia will be similarly compelled to defend its interests. Compromises are possible. Washington and Moscow could weigh up all potential benefits and consequences of their competition in the post-Soviet space and the impact on their interests in other parts of the world, such as Iran.

The latest UN Security Council resolutions on Georgia and North Korea appear to be an example of such a pragmatic approach. The Washington Post reported that Russia agreed to support the UN sanctions resolution on North Korea only after extracting U.S. agreement to the Security Council resolution on Georgia, which extended the mandate of UN observers and legitimized the presence of Russian troops in two breakaway regions of Georgia. It also referred to "militant rhetoric and provocative actions" by Georgia's government.

Such deal making may appear cynical, but it is, after all, the nature of politics and nonproliferation was at stake, as it is with Iran. And in agreeing to sanctions against Kim Jong il's regime, Russia set aside its concerns about the growing U.S. influence and involvement in East Asia.

On Iran, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin has hinted that Moscow would not vote for a tough resolution on Tehran until U.S. sanctions on two Russian companies-Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi-that were initiated as a result of the Iran Act were dropped. Mr. Churkin's counterpart John Bolton has indicated that Washington could consider the issue. U.S. and European officials said Tuesday that to dissuade Moscow from blocking UN action against Iran, Russia would be permitted to work on a nuclear reactor in Iran even if the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear program. That would be a good beginning for Secretary Rice's talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday in Moscow. As the Georgian resolution showed, Ms. Rice and Mr. Lavrov can each offer concessions to reach common ground on Iran's nuclear program-provided each side pry open its sweaty fist.

Andrey Terekhov is Moscow-based staff writer of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an independent daily.