- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

The recent Kremlin-orchestrated verdict in the prosecution (really, persecution) of YUKOS Oil Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky should finally confirm doubts about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to President Bush to keep Russia on the path of democratic reform.

Coupled with Mr. Putin’s recent seizure of media outlets, harassment of political opponents and illegal confiscation of private property, the soviet-style show trial unmasked the true autocratic soul of Mr. Putin and the KGB-era anti-Western “siloviki”(roughly translated “power people”) Politburo that now rules the Kremlin.

Regrettably, the Bush administration reaction to the verdict was disappointingly muted even though the 2004 State Department Human Rights Report found disturbing evidence of Kremlin manipulation of Russia’s judiciary to achieve its political ends. Indeed, no matter how one tries to find consistency in President Bush’s approach to the Russian democracy rollback, the U.S. policy toward Russia, or whatever passes as policy, seems forever under “internal review” — and yes, another such review is under way as if it is supposed to constitute policy.

This is all the more surprising since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the administration’s Russia policy “czarina,” given her careerlong immersion in U.S.-Russian relations.

In the face of the stagnant state of U.S.-Russian relations and Miss Rice’s ineffective leadership in response, she appears headed toward the very failures she berated the Clinton administration for with regard to Russia — namely, failing to “tell the truth” about what is happening inside Russia and ignoring the consequences of Mr. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian policies to U.S. national interests.

If the policy drift continues without an effective reproach to Mr. Putin, there is real danger Miss Rice may soon have to answer to a refrain with which her Republican colleagues incessantly taunted the Clinton administration: “Who lost Russia?”

What is at stake for the United States?

First there is irrefutable evidence the Kremlin’s “re-Sovietization” of the energy sector has directly contributed to escalating U.S. energy prices by roiling energy markets and impairing Russian oil exports. The Kremlin’s assertion of control of Russia’s massive energy sector does not bode well for the United States. It is no accident Mr. Putin considers Russia’s energy reserves an economic and strategic asset to leverage Russia’s influence over energy-starved Baltic and Eastern European nations now allied with the United States.

Moreover, state control of Russia’s oil sector is also intended to add to Mr. Putin’s foreign policy arsenal an asset that, given our reliance on Russia’s oil exports, he believes will mitigate moves by the United States to deter him from his course.

And what may be Mr. Putin’s longer-term goals?

It is increasingly evident by his haphazard domestic and foreign policies that Mr. Putin has come to accept the obvious: Russia will not be welcomed anytime soon into the European Union.

Unlike the former Soviet republics on Russia’s periphery, which embraced reform to qualify for admission to the EU, Mr. Putin has no similar incentive or requirement. As a result, Russia is beyond the gravity of the EU’s democratic obligations.

Mr. Putin aggressively pursues policies designed to reassert Kremlin dominance — both domestically and internationally — to suit a peculiarly unilateralist “mother Russia” agenda.

If that agenda requires Mr. Putin to consolidate and centralize authority at the expense of the rule of law and democratic reform, that is a small price to pay, in his estimation. And if that agenda requires him to pursue policies inimical to the United States, it is a chess game he is prepared to play.

Mr. Putin leaves little to the imagination. Under his direction, Russia asserts a foreign policy directly challenging U.S. interests in stability and democratic reform not only on Russia’s periphery but in the Middle East and now in Latin America.

By supplying nuclear technology to Iran, Mr. Putin undermines joint U.S. — European efforts to end that nation’s nuclear programs. By supplying short-range missiles to Syria, he supports a regime directly facilitating the insurgency in Iraq. By increasing Russian military exports to China, he helps shift the military balance of power in the Far East. Just recently, the White House was caught off-guard by Mr. Putin’s decision to sell Russian weapons to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Moreover, Mr. Putin has hardly lifted a finger to help the U.S. in the global war on terror or to help stabilize Iraq.

Whenever the Bush White House completes its latest review of U.S. policy toward Russia, little will have changed to alter the domestic and foreign policy landscape that Mr. Putin is trying to create. Accordingly, it behooves the Bush administration to:

Stop deluding itself that the degradation of democratic reform in Russia is cost-free to American interests.

Fully and effectively support democratic forces inside Russia.

Maintain pressure on the Kremlin to meet a specific test of its alleged commitment to democratic reform, including the immediate release of Mr. Khodorkovsky, freedom for independent media to operate again, and ending Kremlin harassment of civil society nongovernmental organizations.

And make sure Mr. Putin knows his antidemocratic path is not without cost, including possible deferral of Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization and re-examination of Russia’s continued participation as a full member of the Group of 8 and host of the G-8 summit.

President Bush must surely be disappointed that he misread Mr. Putin’s intentions. Time is running out to convert that disappointment into an effective response.

Marc Ginsberg is a Fox News Channel global analyst and was former U.S. ambassador to Morocco. He is currently chief executive officer of Northstar Equity Group.

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