As the Obama administration is touting the success of its “reset” in relations with Russia, America’s former Cold War rival is challenging key U.S. policies.
On Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Russia’s largest oil firm, Lukoil, had resumed selling refined petroleum to Iran, a direct challenge to U.S. efforts to apply economic pressure on the Islamic republic.
Meanwhile, the Russian press reported that Moscow would be sending more of its S-300 air-defense systems to the disputed Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month called the Russian troop presence in Abkhazia an “occupation.”
The new challenges to the U.S.-Russia relationship come as Moscow is cracking down on dissent and expanding the powers of its domestic security service known as the FSB. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of foreign policy analysts and human rights advocates, organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, called on President Obama to personally condemn the crackdowns on Moscow demonstrations that led to the arrest of a former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov.
“Maybe the administration feels they have developed a better relationship with Russia, and maybe they have, but there has not been an improvement in Russian behavior; in fact, it has gotten worse,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in an interview Wednesday.
The senator expressed particular worry about Russia’s crackdown on human rights. He said a recent law passed by Russia’s Duma was “Stalinist” and would give the state the right to arrest “anyone who appears to pose a threat to security.”
Mrs. Clinton on Wednesday said the centerpiece of the U.S. reset with Russia was the signing of the nuclear arms control treaty known as New START.
“Actually, I think we’ve had a remarkable year, not only in the reset of our relations with Russia, but in furthering the president’s policy towards nonproliferation and setting a very ambitious goal of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons, one that has been endorsed by leaders in our country on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton pointed to not only the START agreement but also the “strategic dialogue” she chairs with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had no immediate response about the report that Lukoil was resuming gasoline sales to Iran.
Lukoil was one of several oil companies that announced in the spring that they were suspending business with Iran, following the U.N. sanctions vote against the Mideast country over its nuclear program.
Reuters reported that Lukoil’s trading arm, Litasco, delivered 250,000 barrels of oil to the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas last week. The news agency also reported that another shipment was expected to be delivered next week.
A Lukoil spokesman told Reuters that “one-off deliveries [to Iran] took place within the frame of previously signed contracts.”
In Georgia, the Russian press reported that Russia would be shipping new batteries of the mobile air-defense system known as the S-300 to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, one of two breakaway provinces recognized by Russia as independent countries, but considered by the United States to be Georgian territory.
The announcement of the S-300 sale comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Abkhazia on Sunday, marking the second anniversary of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
“There have been systems in Abkhazia for two years. We can’t confirm whether they have added to those systems or not,” the State Department’s Mr. Crowley said Wednesday. “So I — we will look into that. But just — this is, by itself, is not necessarily a new development.”
Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he had just completed a phone call with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“I am very worried about the continued violation of the cease-fire agreement negotiated by [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy,” he said. “I am extremely worried about the continued occupation of parts of Georgia that are in violation of the cease-fire lines. They continue to put military equipment into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and they continue to threaten Saakashvili.”
David Kramer, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the George W. Bush administration, said it was a mistake for the Obama administration to oversell the reset with Russia.
“My biggest problem with the administration’s policy is not the idea of the reset, but the administration’s overselling it,” he said. “The administration was all giddy about Russian support for the U.N. resolution in New York against Iran. But getting a resolution isn’t the end. It’s a means to the end.”
Mr. Kramer noted that Russia is expected to complete work on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor by the end of August. Russia has missed several deadlines for completing that project.
While the U.N. sanctions against Iran include a loophole that would allow Moscow to sell the S-300 air-defense system to Tehran, top Russian military officials have said they are suspending the sale for now.
Earlier this summer, the Russian decision prompted threats from Tehran that Moscow would lose business interests in Iran if it did not follow through on its earlier contract to sell the S-300.
The Russia-Iran relationship on some fronts, however, appears to be warming.
Iran’s envoy to Russia, Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, this month praised the Medvedev government for not joining what it called “unilateral sanctions” against his country. After the passage of the sanctions in June, Russia’s prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin, said in a visit to Turkey that he did not think the sanctions would have an effect on Iran’s decision-making process.
Mr. Kramer also noted that the Medvedev government in July hosted Iran’s energy minister, another signal that ties may be warming between Russia and Iran.
“All of the comity that there was in New York on Iran seems to be slowly evaporating,” he said.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network and a former foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton, said Wednesday that reset with Russia has been a success, in part, because of things that had not happened.
“I don’t want too sound happy or complacent about Lukoil, but nobody who understands Russia imagines we are going to get a Russian government that does everything we like and nothing we don’t like,” she said.
“Most important for short-term interests is the relatively smooth flow of supplies into Afghanistan from Russia.”
When Mr. Obama took office, the government of Kyrgyzstan, under Russian pressure, threatened to close the Manas air base that NATO countries use for resupply into Afghanistan.
“On Iran, the only reason we have sanctions was because the Russians went along with the U.N. sanctions,” Ms. Hurlburt said.
She added: “U.S. and Russian re-engagement on nuclear weapons was both bilaterally useful and essential to even restart the global conversation on the role of global nuclear weapons. We needed the reset for that as a global priority.”