- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sept. 23, Congress launched the bipartisan Congressional Russia Caucus, chaired by Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat. It couldn’t be timelier, coming on the heels of the administration’s unrequited concessions to Russia in numerous areas: missile defense, strategic arms talks and the sale of Russian arms to Iran and Venezuela.

The caucus aims to improve relations with Russia. This is challenging, as it needs to cast a critical eye on the executive branch’s lopsided Russian agenda. Since January, the administration has given top priority to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on negotiations. They’re rushing to complete it before the treaty expires in December.

In its quest to push forward the post-START treaty and secure Moscow’s help on Iran, the administration dropped plans for missile defense in Central Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pocketed the concessions, smiled and demanded new ones. The Czechs and the Poles worry that these concessions will tacitly acknowledge Russia’s authority in what its president called the “sphere of privileged interests.”

It’s highly uncertain that President Obama’s gambit to secure Moscow’s help on Iran will succeed. The Iranian agenda is clearly separate from that of Russia, yet the Kremlin views Iran as a geopolitical wedge against the United States and its allies in the Gulf region and the Middle East. While Mr. Medvedev did not completely rule out sanctions, Mr. Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, all but rejected the imposition of stronger sanctions on Iran.

Meanwhile, President Hugo Chavez recently announced that Venezuela will purchase dozens of Russian tanks, helicopters and other arms for more than $2 billion, while boosting strategic ties with Iran. This anti-American and anti-democratic alliance bodes ill for the Western Hemisphere.

There are broader geopolitical concerns with U.S. foreign policy toward Eurasia. In late July, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Ukraine and Georgia. Mr. Biden correctly rejected Russia’s claims to a 19th-century-style sphere of influence, but he fell short in addressing national security concerns for both states. This is ominous. In the run-up to Ukrainian presidential elections in January, the Kremlin has been ratcheting up the pressure on Kiev. Moscow is building up military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and encouraging separatism in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. Russian interference may seriously destabilize Eastern Ukraine and attempt to detach the Crimea.

Europe is moving too slowly to cut its dependence on Russian gas by boosting an alternative pipeline, Nabucco, from Turkey to Europe. To facilitate Nabucco’s construction, U.S. political support for Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and possibly Iraq is necessary. Washington’s long-standing support of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline should be the model for Nabucco involvement.

The recent “trial balloons” floated by Mr. Obama’s geopolitical guru, Zbigniew Brzezinski, are disconcerting. In the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brzezinski called for a treaty between NATO and the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as a joint NATO-Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council. Such proposals would, essentially, recognize Russia’s sphere of influence in its “near abroad” at the same time Moscow is seeking to drive a wedge between NATO members.

Yet, U.S.-Russian relations are not hopeless. Economic ties between the two nations will expand if Russia promotes the rule of law and fights corruption. The administration will likely ask Congress to abrogate the Jackson-Vanick Amendment, which demanded free emigration of Soviet Jews, something accomplished long ago. Jackson-Vanick must be lifted for Russia to receive Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.

However, the caucus should not let the administration’s desire for a START follow-on treaty trump core American foreign policy values and objectives. The new caucus should insist that no treaty be signed until the Defense Department completes its Nuclear Posture Review this December.

Congress should refuse to fund reductions in the U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces under the START follow-on treaty with Russia in fiscal 2010 unless the president certifies to Congress that the treaty provides enough mechanisms to verify compliance.

The caucus should support targeted sanctions against Russian companies that sell destabilizing weapons to Iran and Venezuela. Congress should demand Moscow’s cooperation on robust sanctions against Iran, including curbing gasoline imports and the cessation of all military supplies and technologies, unless Tehran agrees to accept full International Atomic Energy Agency supervision of its nuclear program.

The caucus should uphold the rights of post-Soviet states to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Congress should encourage the Obama administration to work with European governments and companies to implement Nabucco, the gas pipeline connecting the Caspian reserves to Europe.

Finally, U.S.-Russian relations will improve if Russian society become becomes more open, transparent and democratic. Congress should work with the administration to promote democracy, good governance, transparency, the rule of law and improvement of property rights, and conduct hearings on these subjects.

U.S.-Russian relations are too important to be left exclusively to the arms-control enthusiasts. The Congressional Russia Caucus should guard American interests while promoting an agenda that encourages security, freedom, democracy and economic cooperation with Russia.

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