While visiting Moscow last week, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez painted a rosy picture of U.S.-Russian relations. “The only thing people read once in a while is that we have a disagreement, but even family members have disagreements,” Gutierrez was quoted as saying. “We are acquainted with the plans for Russia’s accession to the WTO by the end of this year and will support this with all our efforts,” he added (Vremya novostei, April 5).
Gutierrez said that he did not know when the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Soviet-era trade restriction, would be lifted, because it was up to the U.S. Congress to decide (Moscow Times, April 3). Still overall, it was an extremely positive visit and a serious attempt to favorably spin a rapidly deteriorating relationship. But sadly, Gutierrez’s good-will mission did not have any lasting effect. A few days after his departure, Moscow was shocked by a statement from U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab in Washington that Russia is not ready to join the WTO and that Jackson-Vanik will remain in effect for the time being (RIA-Novosti, April 10). In Moscow this sudden reversal was interpreted as another example of American double-dealing.
Trade is not the only field of disagreement. Last week the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world. The latest issue criticized Russia, among other states, for suppressing free elections, press independence, “alleged government involvement in politically motivated abductions, disappearances, and unlawful killings in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus,” hazing in the armed forces, torture, violence, and “other brutal or humiliating treatment by security forces” (U.S. Department of State, April 5). The speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, Boris Grizlov — a member of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party — called U.S. support of democracy in Russia an unacceptable infringement into Russian internal affairs and an example of “double standards.” Grizlov announced that the Duma would soon vote on a resolution condemning the State Department report (RIA-Novosti, April 10).
Last week the Duma unanimously approved another resolution condemning “the consistent and unjustifiable obstruction” of the ratification of the adapted version of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty by NATO that “is creating conditions for the uncontrolled military buildup near Russian borders and poses a direct threat to the security and stability of Europe” (RIA-Novosti, April 6). The CFE was signed in 1990 by NATO and the now defunct Warsaw Pact to control conventional armaments in Europe. An adapted version of CFE was signed in 1999 at Moscow’s request, but Western countries have refused to ratify it before Russia fully withdraws its soldiers from Georgia and Moldova.
The Kremlin has refused a full withdrawal and has accused the West of treachery, of using a pretext to increase its military superiority. The Duma statement on CFE also denounced U.S. plans to deploy missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic, saying it “will trigger a new arms race and may lead to a split in Europe.” The Duma statement declared U.S. plans to expand its missile defense shield into Ukraine and the Caucasus “especially unsettling.”
A siege mentality has now gripped Russia. The ruling elite, the corrupt business-connected bureaucracy that has stolen Russia and fully dismantled its fragile post-Soviet democratic institutions, considers any Western incursion into the Commonwealth of Independent States or Russian politics as a direct threat to its rule and an assault on its personal wealth. The political future of the Russian elite is wobbly, since Vladimir Putin refuses to continue ruling as a dictator-president for life. The enormous wealth of the pro-Putin elite has been acquired through dubious means and may disappear in any future upheaval or democratic revolution.
The threat to the Russian elite does not come from Iran, China, or North Korea. These countries are in no way interested in bringing democracy, the rule of law, or a free press to Russia or any CIS member. With the insurgency in the North Caucasus mostly contained at present and the Taliban in Afghanistan driven far from post-Soviet Central Asia to the Pakistan border area by the U.S.-lead alliance, the Islamist-connected terrorist threat is not seen as imminent. The genuine threat is currently perceived to be coming from the West. This is not a case of lingering Cold War attitudes: Russia’s ruling elites’ true interests conflict with Western standards and values, while broadly coinciding with those of, say, Iran and its rulers.
This is the true material reason that makes Russo-Western cooperation arduous to achieve and, in many cases, impossible. Moscow is apprehensive of Iran and does not want it to go nuclear. But at the same time, the Russian military does not believe that Iranian nukes or ballistic missiles will ever be used against Russia, thus a joint missile defense with the U.S. against rogue states is deemed unnecessary. Iran is seen as an important bulwark to contain U.S. influence in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. The consensus in Moscow is that containing Iranian nuclear ambitions is a good idea, but pressing too hard is wrong, at a time when the West is attempting to reduce Russian influence in the CIS and is promoting democracy in the region.
Western attempts to advance common responses to common threats by proliferating the venues of discussions in NATO-Russia, EU-Russia, U.S.-Russia councils and working groups have proven either fruitless or counterproductive. The West may not see Russia as an enemy, but Russia does.