U.S.-Russia relations in spotlight after 'open-mike' comment
WASHINGTON - Quipping that he was glad "to have a microphone that I can see," President Barack Obama offered this tongue-in-cheek message for journalists attending a luncheon this week: "Feel free to transmit any of this to Vladimir if you see him."
It was an inside joke about Obama's recent open-mike comment to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to deal with missile defense if re-elected. Medvedev promised to "transmit this information to Vladimir" Putin, who recently won election to reclaim the Russian presidency next month.
Luncheon guests laughed at Obama's insider joke, but the president's likely GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, didn't regard the off-mike comment as a laughing matter. He blasted the offhand comment as "alarming and troubling," alleging that Obama's "flexibility" might extend beyond arms control to a wider easing of the U.S. stance toward Russia, which Romney called this nation's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
Defending Romney's stance, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters last week: "I thought it was really astounding that the president acted like the problem here was that the mike was on, rather than what he said.... He shouldn't be saying things at this point, in that regard, that the American people wouldn't know about."
Indeed, the screech of political feedback following the incident echoed with the themes of the future relationship between a Putin-led Russia and this country, whether it is led by Obama or the Republican nominee. For Russia has the potential to play a pivotal role in a range of international issues that include policies toward Iran, Syria, energy security, Afghanistan, China, North Korea, terrorism and nuclear weapons.
While issues of arms control and missile defense also are high on that list, they clearly will not be resolved before this country's November election. Meanwhile, other issues of more immediate concern include Russia's obstructive positions in the U.N. Security Council against sanctions targeting the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
And the most time-sensitive issue -- at least, for U.S. exporters -- is whether concerns over Russia's foreign policy and human rights record will spill over into the congressional debate on legislation to boost this country's trade ties with Russia.
When leaders of the Group of Eight Western powers meet at Camp David on May 18-19, Obama and Putin will likely have an opportunity to repair aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship that have been strained. And trade seems likely to be a major issue.
Jackson-Vanik and human rights
As a Russian chess grandmaster who leads a reform-minded political movement, Garry Kasparov knows that strategy is essential to dealing effectively with the Kremlin.
To that end, Kasparov is among those who want Congress to replace the Jackson-Vanik amendment -- added to U.S. trade law in 1974 to punish countries that restricted emigration -- with a new law to impose visa and asset sanctions against Russian officials guilty of criminal and human rights abuses.
There is wide agreement that Jackson-Vanik is a Cold War relic that should be rescinded. And, indeed, that law's main sanction -- denying countries favorable trade status, called "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) -- are at odds with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Late last year, the WTO approved the entry of Russia, which is expected to join the trade organization by the end of July -- a month after the Russian Duma approves. Once that happens, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., says the failure of Congress to repeal Jackson-Vanik and approve PNTR status for Russia would deny U.S. companies the market-opening benefits of Russia joining the WTO.
If the United States does not grant PNTR, that does not hurt Russia one whit. It hurts the United States -- dramatically," Baucus said at a Senate hearing last month. "If we do grant PNTR, it helps Americans."
That's also the assertion of a coalition of 173 U.S. companies and business groups -- including Boeing Corp. and the St. Louis-based National Corn Growers Association -- that signed a letter last month urging senators to grant PNTR to Russia and warning that if Congress fails to act, "U.S. companies and their employees will be left behind our competitors" in the growing Russian market.
The Business Roundtable -- an association of chief executives of major U.S. companies -- also has made PNTR approval a top legislative priority. In a series of "fact sheets" that show the impact of Russian trade with each state, the Roundtable says that Missouri and Illinois both stand to lose if Congress does not act.
Illinois exported $717 million worth of goods to Russia last year, including equipment such as tractors and bulldozers. Missouri exported about $86 million worth of goods to Russia, led by pork products, chemicals and saw blades. Companies involved in trade with Russia include Nestle Purina in St. Louis, Tapco Molding in Bridgeton, and Charles S. Lewis & Co. in Affton.
American businesses want action because they would be hurt if Congress does nothing this summer. To join the WTO, Russia is required to lower tariffs, increase market access for foreign businesses and bolster its protections for intellectual property. But if Congress does not grant Russia PNTR status, U.S. firms would not get the same legal protections against Russian tariffs and other hurdles to business that companies from other countries would gain.
Sam Allen, the chief executive of Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill., told the Senate Finance Committee that granting PNTR for Russia "is crucial for U.S. manufacturers, service providers and agricultural producers to receive the full benefits of Russia's WTO accession, and to compete on a level playing field for Russian customers."
Would 'Magnitsky rule' strain relations?
While many senators would like to rescind Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR with no conditions, others -- supporting the positions of Kasparov and other Russian human rights activists -- want to maintain leverage by pairing the trade-status bill with a new law to sanction Russian functionaries responsible for human rights abuses.
A bipartisan group of 17 senators -- led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat, and conservative Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex. -- argues that this country should not be increasing trade with Russia while that nation arms the Syrian regime with weapons that have been used to kill an estimated 8,000 civilians.
"If you are going to subsidize the killing of innocent people, we can no longer afford to do business with you," Durbin said in a recent Senate speech. "I hope the Russians will understand, once and for all, that they can't play both sides of the street, and we in the United States should draw the line."
The bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month urging the U.S. government to stop buying helicopters for the Afghan military from Rosoboronexport, a giant, government-affiliated Russian firm that also exports weapons to the Syrian regime.
Many of those senators are also supporting a bill, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, whose 31 co-sponsors include Sens. Durbin, Blunt and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Named for a Russian lawyer who died in police custody in 2009 while investigating corruption, the bill would authorize penalties for Russians considered to be involved in Magnitsky's death and also any Russian official who commits "gross" violations against human rights activists.
While many agree with the spirit of the Magnitsky bill, they worry about the implications of linking it to the Jackson-Vanik and PNTR actions at a time when Putin -- a skeptic about Russia's accession to the WTO -- is returning to power.
In a recent report, "A Bull in Bear's Clothing: Russia, WTO and Jackson-Vanik," a Bipartisan Policy Center task force led by former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and former Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., recommended that Congress should "graduate" Russia from Jackson-Vanik but also "enact legislation that promotes more effectively Russian human rights and civil society."
Michael Makovsky, a one-time staffer for former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who is now national security director at the BPC, said at a conference last month that balancing the trade reforms with human rights concerns is "a very challenging issue."
"If we don't graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik, the Russians could prejudice U.S. businesses," Makovsky said. But he added that "we are also concerned about Russian human rights," including recent evidence of electoral fraud. "We don't want a weak Russia, a Russia that collapses. A more vibrant Russia is in U.S. strategic interests."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, called for explicitly linking the trade reforms with the Magnitsky human rights bill. But Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, who heads the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, cautioned that such linkage might end up hurting U.S. exporters.
"We should deny visas to people who have committed crimes and grave violations of human rights" -- and it has been U.S. policy to do so, Gordon said. But he added: "Let's not punish ourselves by insisting on some linkage" to specific human-rights legislation.
Demanding such linkage "in effect, would be to say: If we don't pass certain human rights and democracy provisions, it is the policy of the United States to sanction GE, John Deere, Boeing, our agriculture and workers in Peoria," Gordon said. "That just can't be in the interest of the United States."
Next: arms control and other issues in U.S.-Russia relations.