Following the Democrats’ sweep to victory in the midterm elections, various blogs and columnists have offered their two cents on how the new Democratic majority in the House and Senate would impact U.S.-Russian relations. Unfortunately, like many strictly partisan discussions of foreign policy, some of these commentators are missing the point entirely. For example, some on the right have taken the rather reactionary viewpoint that Democratic control of Congress will result in a “tougher” orientation toward Russia, and that these hardliners shouldn’t make an unnecessary enemy out of Russia. These apologists mimic the talking points of the Kremlin, such as those of Boris Gryzlov, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, who told the Washington Post that “there are fears that the Democrats are more prone to apply double standards in human rights.” In a similar vein, Aleksandr Golts of Yezhednevny zhurnal, told Radio Free Europe the following:
The key posts in Congress are now occupied by people who all these years have retained a consistent anti-Putin stance. Congressman Lantos has consistently said that Russia in its current conditions has no place in the G8 [Group of Eight leading industrialized countries], and has again and again denounced human rights violations in Russia. Being the head of the International Relations Committee will enable him not only to gain a larger audience for such declarations, but also to take concrete action. And considering that Russian leaders interpret any critique as some kind of global conspiracy to humiliate Russia and prevent it from getting back on its feet, I think that relations between our countries will continue to deteriorate.
It is interesting that the apologists don’t make any mention of the strong statements made by Sen. John McCain in regards to Russia, or recall the blunt terms used by Dick Cheney in Latvia, or Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s distinguished career in regards to Russia policy. Taking a critical stance toward Russia is not a red/blue issue – it’s common sense. The principal problem with the arguments of Gryzlov, Golts, and the apologists is that they believe that criticism of Putin’s policies is somehow incompatible with the building of a constructive partnership. I wholeheartedly disagree, and I believe that a healthy defense of human rights, international law, democracy, and justice is the cornerstone of a positive relationship with Russia, and that anyone who suggests that the U.S. needs to show more tolerance of Russian authoritarianism is no friend of the Russian people. Living in Europe over the last number of years, I have come to understand that it is the nature of apologists, whatever their stripe, to attempt to place economics over principals, and what they perceive to be expedience over the reality of national interests. Frankly, one thing these apologists have in common is ignorance of the state of affairs in Russia. Beyond Democrat vs. Republican, and much more important that who will chair the House Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S.-Russia relationship is not something that fits neatly into partisan categories, but rather is in many ways definitive of the bi-partisan national interest in a sound foreign policy, especially in regards to the current situations in Iran and North Korea. I need it explained to me how the United States needs Russian help on Iran, when it is the Russians who benefit by the present stalemate and uncertainty over the nuclear situation. The Russians are in fact the key beneficiaries, both as technological suppliers to Iran in the nuclear area, and as the #1 competitor in respect to the development of Iranian natural gas, which represents the one possible answer to Europe’s increasing energy dependence on Russia. It can be fairly argued that the United States has the most to gain from opening up a dialogue with Iran, rather than cozying up to a Moscow which is doing its best to isolate Iran to preserve energy hegemony over Europe at the expense of a possible nuclear crisis in the Mideast. Furthermore, the Kremlin and its apologists have done an amazing job of convincing Washington that their participation and cooperation in solving problems with Iran and North Korea is something that must be bargained for. When the apologists argue that Washington should overlook abuses of human rights, shrinking democratic freedoms, and the hubris of energy imperialism because it “needs” Russia’s cooperation, they need to remember that Moscow has its own interests in working with the West. As they share a border with Iran, and are well within range of North Korean arms, they are the ones who would absorb tremendous risk with a region-wide Shia revival or a nuclear conflagration in the East. This pandering by apologists makes little geopolitical sense, and comes at the cost of intelligent analysis and definition of both European and American national interest. This realpolitik, however, misses the boat entirely in failing to address the substantial US interest in enforcing rule of law and compliance with international treaties with respect to the Russians. If American and other foreign businesses are to survive in Russia in the medium term, a strong US position on the escalating danger of the classic cocktail of corruption, lack of transparency, and departure from the rule of law, is what needs to be addressed. These issues, and the difficulty that Europe has had in facing them, is exactly what both Democrats and Republicans need to agree on for the national interest. Contrary to what the scaremongers may say, Democratic control of the House is not going to “prevent” Russian ascension to the WTO (as already demonstrated), but will rather provide the most important forum in which the two countries can address these concerns. We need to immediately stop buying into this paranoid myth which seeks to equate reform with failure. When we ask Russia to change, we do so because we want her to succeed.