Next Wednesday, April 16, ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos will moderate a debate between U.S. Democratic Presidential Candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The time will be short, the issues numerous, and the questions probing the candidates’ positions on foreign policy … likely only a handful. There is no disputing the urgency of other foreign policy issues, such as the war in Iraq, threats from Iran, stability in Afghanistan, or the China-Tibet issue, but a narrow focus on only these areas would be a mistake. We cannot afford to have the next president of the United States ill-prepared to deal with the ambitions of a resurgent Russia, strengthened by the state’s grip on oil and gas, nuclear armed, and rapidly slipping away toward authoritarianism while obstructing U.S. policy preferences across the globe.
Another reason for Gibson and Stephanopoulos to put Russia on the debate agenda is that there’s a chance we might actually hear something new. Throughout this exceptionally long primary season, we have gotten a reasonable good idea of each candidate’s views on issues like Iraq, yet so little information on their strategy of engagement with Moscow, which will soon be under the new leadership of president-elect Dmitry Medvedev.Furthermore, both Hillary and Obama would do well to prepare for their presumptive presidential campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain, who in many ways has declared ownership of the Russia issue – publishing several opinion articles and declaring his opposition to Russia’s membership in the G8.There are some valid arguments and criticism that the Democrats could score points with on McCain’s Russia stance, but at the moment it looks like he will run circles around both Clinton and Obama when the issue comes up.A good point of departure for Gibson and Stephanopoulos to take would be to note that what differentiates a country like the United States from a country like Russia, is that journalists and average citizens enjoy the freedom to be able to ask their candidates questions, helping them make up their mind over who wins their vote. Russian citizens were not able to do the same with their new president, who declined to participate in debates.Voters should know what these candidates would intend to do to improve the situation of human rights and political prisoners in Russia. Specifically, the Council on Foreign Relations and other organizations have previously identified the Yukos affair as the watershed event in Vladimir Putin’s drive to seize control of the energy sector as a Kremlin foreign policy tool, and quash any independent, civil society sources of influence as led by Mikhail Khodorkovsky – now Russia’s most well known political prisoner and my client.In the years since, the situation has dramatically worsened. The state’s abuses have badly deteriorated rule of law, leading to further unlawful confiscations of property, bogus investigations and arrests of civil society activists, and an aggressive clampdown on freedom of speech. The treatment of Yukos prisoners has attracted international concern, such as the terminally ill lawyer Vasily Alexanyan, who was denied urgent medical treatment as blackmail for false testimony against Khodorkovsky, and Platon Lebedev, who the European Court of Human Rights found had had his rights violated repeatedly by the illegal tactics of the Russian prosecutors. The trial of Khodorkovsky was declared to have been politically motivated by Switzerland’s highest court.Given Khodorkovsky’s success as a businessman coming out of the turmoil of post-Soviet Russia, there were many who were quick to assume the Kremlin’s accusations. However as time progressed and the disproportionate, selective punishment was meted out with increasing cruelty, it became nothing less than naïve to deny that this was a political trial which had very little to do with the administration of justice. As the positive court decisions accumulated in true rule of law courts, esteemed figures such as the late Congressman Tom Lantos, French philosopher Andre Glucksmann, and acclaimed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa have all come out in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, asking that world leaders take action.The questions to the candidates next Wednesday: If elected president, what actions will you take to free Russia’s political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky? What carrots and sticks are available to the United States to help improve human rights in Russia? How can the change in leadership in both countries add up to a closer relationship, greater progress, and deepening trust? What are the necessary conditions or “litmus tests” for Russia’s next presidential administration to pass in order to become a strategic partner of the United States?This is just a beginning of the Russia policy debate, but they are questions that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should think very carefully about before, not after, they presume to take the nation’s highest office.