Russia Hardens its Lines – The US Meek in Response

The IHT and New York Times have an interesting opinion column by John Vinocur today, in which he argues that the American reaction to Vladimir Putin’s recent conduct is shockingly weak. Emphasis added.

For Russia’s Cooperation, a Harder Line May Be Needed By JOHN VINOCUR International Herald Tribune BRUSSELS Vladimir Putin does not want to be “reviled and isolated,” a close adviser to a European government leader was saying the other day. Could be. But one problem when it comes to mustering opprobrium and ostracism, even in careful doses, is that President George W. Bush and Europe appear incapable of making Putin believe they have the will or the unity to manage either. So while newspapers were recounting visions of Russia’s return to Cold War tactics – murders in London, harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow, silencing BBC broadcasts in Russian – Putin’s people went ahead last week further holding up an already defanged UN Security Council resolution on Iran that, if it passes, would only postpone the question of when the world will sanction the mullahs’ nuclear program more seriously. The resolution’s delay, now running toward a fourth month, says something. For an Iran expert talking at a symposium, it signifies Iran’s strengthening belief that it can get away with anything in moving toward nuclear weapons – with what for some appears to be tacit Russian complicity. And that without any apparent downside for the Russians, Iran’s major supplier of arms and heavy equipment. In fact, if Russia were somehow producing a Baker Commission report this week on Putin’s fulfillment of major strategic goals since 2003, from the point of view of Moscow’s nationalist power politics, he would get straight A’s. Putin has pushed and bullied Ukraine and Georgia away from NATO, established and deepened Europe’s dependence on Russian energy sources, and elbowed the European Union into near silence in the face of threatened boycotts and Russia’s refusal to sign a charter of good conduct between energy suppliers’ and their clients. Through the Security Council, and Bush’s current reliance on it, Putin holds a Russian veto and a gatekeeper’s prerogatives in relation to the West’s hopes to stop Iran. The war in Chechnya, normally a minus-column entry, escapes serious censure because the allies keep quiet about it. A democracy that’s flickered out, a fleeting rule of law? To Putin, they’re nonproblems, as disposable as paper hats and tinsel. Alongside Vice President Dick Cheney’s supposedly hard-line speech on Russia in Lithuania last May (it reads like softly-softly stuff now), contrast Putin’s current behavior and the Americans’ faint reaction to it: Bush meets twice with Putin in the last 30 days and offers him American approval for membership in the World Trade Organization. This, after years of withholding it out of minimal belief in Russia’s reform course. Amazing. For Europe, here was Bush, whose bark is regarded in the European subconscious as ultimate back-up insurance against Russia, giving away something for nothing without a hint of a quid pro quo. Less than nothing, actually, in terms of Russian contempt. Pocketing the WTO offer, Putin then thumbed his nose at Bush and NATO through an attempt to set up a private dinner with Jacques Chirac in the margins of the Alliance summit meeting in Latvia two weeks ago. Some Europeans see Bush as cowed. For the most part, they want him to talk directly to Iran. They don’t laugh off one American analysis that argues that in refusing the Baker Commission’s call to engage Iran directly, Bush seemed to abandon his best route to bypass Putin’s barrier at the Security Council and move ahead with or without European allies who will not talk of an eventual military response to Iranian nukes. In the view of experts at the symposium, the juxtaposition of American and Russian behavior leaves Iran believing it does not have to fear attack. Beyond that, they say, Iran thinks it holds levers over Russia on a number of strategic regional issues, and may be able to buy Russian support as the Iranian nuclear program evolves. So what to do? The least dismal part in working toward an answer is that the Russians continue to publicly insist that they don’t want Iran to have a military nuclear program, and seek the same goal as the Allies. One response is for the allies to tell the Russians they must stop being a problem on every front. This involves what may seem more like a wish-list than reality. The official who believes that Putin does not want contempt or a pariah status – without insisting he thinks the West could make this into Putin’s fate – enumerated a series of points that could meld into a common European/American admonition. It would say to Russia that it must be helpful and consistent on Iran, stop attempting to destabilize Ukraine and Georgia, approve a UN resolution giving Kosovo its independence, and accept the idea that the West wants a constructive relationship. Investment and technical assistance is the carrot. Intensive development by Europe of alternative energy sources to Russia is the precaution. But getting Putin to move? The answer there, the official said, would be a more united, more coherent front that does not start qualifying the message “when there’s a deal in the wind.” He did not mention Bush. If the Baker Commission argues that Bush is failing in his prosecution of the war in Iraq, the truth is also that Russia’s current view of America as its “primary adversary” (the phrase is that of a senior U.S. official two months ago) serves as an accusation Bush has failed as well in his favorable, accommodating judgment of Putin. Acknowledging this now and acting to reverse it (or just disregarding it) would become an indelible part of Bush’s legacy. In any event, Putin’s aggressive Russia commands a decision because it’s a big part of an existential problem dogging the president’s final 14 months: how not to leave office with Iran on track to become a nuclear threat. For Putin, his favorable legacy at home already looks assured when his time is up (in theory) in 2008. He’s the man who retrieved Russia from humiliation and turned it into a nation that counts again. His reaction to purely verbal contempt coming from abroad? Hah. The only seemingly certain route to shame in Putin’s mind would be for him to retreat or show weakness at those points where he’s marked out Russia’s hard new lines.