Monday, July 23, 2007

An Acquiescent U.S. in the Face of Russian Provocation

Published: July 23, 2007

Does anybody out there remember Dick Cheney's harangue in Lithuania last year, the growlingly bellicose one that the Russians regard as heralding a new Cold War?

Here's how that dreadful man, who is 800 percent responsible for the Russians suspending the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, threatening to target European Union members with new missiles, and even talking the possibility of an America versus Russia shooting war within the next decade, got it all started:

In a speech in May 2006 to a group of new democracies at the edges of the old Soviet Union, Cheney said, "None of us believe that Russia is fated to become an enemy."

"A Russia that increasingly shares the values of this community can be a strategic partner and a trusted friend as we work toward common goals," he said.

The Wild Man from the White House also asserted - although just in passing, a re-read of the speech shows - that there were opponents of reform in Russia trying to reverse its movement toward a lawful, civil society, and that "no legitimate interest is served" when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail.

For at-your-throat shock and provocation challenging peace among nations and good sense, that's it.

Fourteen months later, we have a remarkable situation. The Russians, insisting they face a vast, American-led Western menace, move almost weekly from new outburst to new provocation.

And the Bush administration, out-doing even some of its European allies, offers a half-contrite, half-rationalizing response that depends heavily on the idea that Russia's assertiveness is linked to nationalist posturing ahead of its presidential election (or selection) next year.

What seems to reign on the administration's policymaking floors - where's Cheney? - is the rather daring hope that this is a harsh Russian moment that will pass. In Europe, you can add to that wish the idea that if everyone sits tight now, greater impetus toward calm will surely accompany George W. Bush's departure in 2009.

But the circumstances show an intensifying pattern.

Well before Cheney's almost bland speech on Russia's regression toward authoritarianism, the Russians were threatening the energy supply of countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland.

When the West had a chance to use its leverage to press a charter regulating fair energy supply at the G-8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg later in 2006, it let Russia off the hook. The American explanation was that Vladimir Putin's help was needed at the United Nations to stop the Iranian drive toward nuclear weapons.

Now, with the Russians still occupying the gatekeeper's chair at the UN Security Council, a third set of Iran sanctions that the Bush administration said would be enacted in July is off the rails because of Russian opposition.

Officials in Washington explain that there is growing agreement with Russia on the need to stop Iran, but that tactical differences are "heightened" and getting new sanctions is a tougher matter.

How could they not be? Russia sees that it can maneuver pretty much at will.

When Russia unilaterally announced 10 days ago that it was suspending its participation in the conventional forces agreement of 1990 - which ended the nose-to-nose troop confrontations of the Cold War, but included no provision for suspension - the Americans rationalized the move as a pause for rethinking a treaty that needs readjustment.

Last week, in the face of a Russian veto threat, the Americans and Europeans abandoned the Security Council as the enabling forum to deliver the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a Russian client.

This was not just a tactical retreat. It was a victory for a Russian strategy that seeks to redivide Europe and re-establish its own spheres of influence.

On the scale of Russian successes since the Soviet Union's implosion, the partial Western climb-down on Kosovo was so marked that no new Russian leader, elected or imposed, would ever want to disregard it as a precedent.

This is bundled into a kind of Russian brow-beating that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Examples:

Sergei Ivanov, the Russian first deputy prime minister, says that if the Americans, Poles and Czechs go ahead with deploying a defensive missile shield aimed at potential Iranian nuclear threat, Russia would consider targeting nukes at Europe from Kaliningrad. That's a deployment area provokingly wedged on a speck of Russia outside its borders, between the NATO members Lithuania and Poland.

Major General Alexandr Vladimirov tells Russia's biggest newspaper, Komsolskya Pravda, that war with the United States is a possibility in the next 10 to 15 years.

The problem here is not just excess, but that the single American-European answer for it has been increasing the level of dialogue - with the Russian response, in turn, dismally clear on issues like Iranian sanctions or Kosovo.

With no Western push back marking their recent experience, the Russians have no objective reason not to try to turn so-called explanatory discussions on conventional forces or the missile shield into zero-sum negotiations: The Americans make concessions Russia wants, while Russia continues to demarcate the do-not-tread zone of its new influence.

The Bush administration's acquiescent manner has somehow rendered Russian action reasonable where it is not. Privately, the administration bewilders at least a couple of its European friends.

A cabinet member of a West European government, who asked not to be identified, said that the explanation may be that 80 percent of the White House's preoccupations are concerned with Iraq. Anything outside that area is subordinate.

The Russians, it would seem, fall onto a B-list of concerns, having chosen mostly to leave the Americans alone to twist in their Iraqi misery.

It's in this climate that signs of resistance to Russia are regarded elsewhere with respect.

The British expulsion of Russian diplomats following apparent Kremlin involvement in a British citizen's murder in London is such a step.

The expulsions' subtext makes clear that in dealing with the Russians, there are points when potential commercial repercussions must not be taken into account.

"It's the hard option," said the European official. Alongside more talk, he called it "the right way to start."