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All Roads Pass Through Moscow

Should Russia become a top priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda?

May 17, 2006

Should Russia become a top priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda?

It is natural to set priorities in foreign policy. Given the urgency of so many other issues, one of the lower priorities right now is U.S. policy towards Russia.

While Vice President Cheney made headlines recently for criticizing its creeping authoritarianism and manipulative energy policy, Russia has been of only secondary interest to the United States in recent years. That is a mistake, because it is in Russia that our most important foreign policy challenges converge.

The most obvious challenge, and arguably the most important, is Iran’s nuclear ambition. Russia has acted as something of an interlocutor in Iran’s standoff with the international community, exploring possible solutions and advising against the imposition of sanctions.

Whether or not its diplomatic efforts succeed, there is no question that Russia has influence with Iran. Beyond its veto power on the Security Council, Russia has substantial commercial interests there, as well as a degree of moral authority. Its cooperation will be indispensable if there is to be effective international action against Iran.

Yet, it is not only with respect to Iran that Russia’s position on nuclear issues matters. The territory of the former Soviet Union still has tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and the systems to deliver them virtually anywhere in the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, government control over these weapons has badly deteriorated, and Russia has devoted insufficient resources to both securing its own material and helping other former Soviet states do the same.

It is only a matter of time before such material falls into the hands of terrorists across its southern borders with Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Russia’s management of nuclear issues and its relationships in the Middle East relate closely to its energy policy. Russia is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of oil and gas.

Now and for years to come, energy will be the decisive factor in its fiscal health and economic performance, and thus its political confidence. Indeed, as oil and gas prices rise and natural resources become greater currency in our Middle East policy, Russia’s leverage will come into sharper relief.

As Vice President Cheney recognized, Russia has the ability — and, regrettably, the inclination — to use energy as a political tool, as it showed last winter when it briefly cut off supplies to Ukraine. One can imagine the danger if Russia makes a habit of this kind of energy policy.

Then there is Russia’s behavior in its immediate neighborhood. Since taking power in 2000, President Vladimir Putin has almost uniformly supported the region’s many repressive regimes.

In late 2004, he found himself on the wrong side of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution that defeated the Kremlin’s candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in Ukraine’s presidential election.

This March, he fell all over himself in support of Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenka in that country’s deeply flawed presidential election. He supported Uzbekistan after its bloody crackdown on demonstrators in May 2005, and he often encourages pro-Russian separatist movements in places like Georgia and Moldova.

Whatever the issue, Russia’s foreign policy is inseparable from its domestic political environment. That is why the recent deterioration in political pluralism and the rule of law in Russia are so troubling.

In just a few years Putin has substantially concentrated authority in the central government, restructuring Russia’s parliament and regional governments to advance the Kremlin’s policy preferences.

His government has stifled independent media sources, restricted the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations, and regularly used the criminal justice system for blatantly political purposes.

The new practices in its internal policies make it much more difficult to engage Russia on external matters. To the extent the Kremlin consolidates its power, forbids dissent and scoffs at the rule of law, Russia is less likely to be a constructive partner on matters of mutual interest with the United States.

It would be more inclined, for example, to manage nuclear matters secretly, to use its oil and gas for political ends, and to freelance in the Middle East.

It is understandable that Americans would pay less attention to Russia right now. But that does not make it good policy. Russia stands, precariously and inevitably, at the intersection of almost all the key issues facing the United States’ foreign relations.

It is not enough to make occasional strong statements, accurate though they may be, in hopes that the “problem” of Russia fades. Unlike that classic parlor game where one pulls wooden bricks from a quivering stack, we cannot simply pluck Russia from the picture. We must deal with it.