The Autumn of the US-Russia Reset

World Affairs

A colleague and I have described the post-Soviet era in Russia as the “age of impunity,” whereby even the most howlingly obvious crimes of man or state are implausibly denied or whitewashed in a manner redolent of Stalinist propaganda. Two such examples have furnished themselves in quick succession in the last month, one relating to the conviction of a notorious Russian arms dealer and the other to a Russian nuclear scientist’s facilitation of Iran’s atom bomb project. Both acts would have spelt the end of the US-Russian “reset” without the added complications of renewed brinkmanship over the placement of a US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe and the drubbing delivered to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in a transparently fraudulent parliamentary election on December 4th.

First the arms dealer. On November 2nd, Viktor Bout was sentenced in a New York court of attempting to sell heavy weapons to FARC, Colombia’s Marxist-Leninist terrorist group. Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” and vaguely the model for Nicolas Cage’s character in the forgettable film Lord of War, Bout was a one-man clearinghouse of post-Soviet munitions for dictators and murderous regimes. There was scarcely a civil war fought in Africa in the 1990s and 2000s—and consequently, a limb dismembered or body decimated—without Bout’s hardware. He was chummy with the indicted war criminal and ex-president of Liberia, Charles Taylor. According to Bout’s biographer, Douglas Farah, the Merchant of Death was also seen schmoozing with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, just prior to the second Israel-Lebanon War, which saw the Party of God firing Russian-made, armor-piercing antitank weapons that shocked even the IDF in terms of their sophistication and impact.

Alex Yearsley, a UN arms control expert, has also fingered Bout in running guns to Somalia’s al-Qaeda–linked Islamist cell, al-Shabab. “Viktor was not an intelligence agent of the state,” Yearsley has said. “He was a money-making machine, but also a foreign policy tool principally of Russian military intelligence.”

Perhaps this is why the Putin regime heartily disapproves of the gunrunner’s conviction. “[U]njust and political,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of the Bout verdict. “Our goal is return him back to his country,” a foreign ministry spokesperson, Aleksandr Lukashevich, affirmed in a broadcast on Russian state television, adding that the US was holding Bout in “unjustifiably cruel conditions.”

That last allegation was almost certainly intended as dog-whistle to the State Department, as the Kremlin has previously used Bout’s legal difficulties as a macabre threat against pending Senate legislation known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. If passed into law, that bill would start by sanctioning 60 Russian officials complicit in the wrongful detention, torture, and death of anticorruption attorney Sergei Magnitsky two years ago for the crime of exposing a $230 million tax fraud. The bill would finish by revolutionizing US human foreign policy as we know it because built into the language is a categorical measure to sanction any foreign officials from any country who are credibly suspected of gross human rights violations, such as, say, those awful taxmen in China trying to railroad dissident artist Ai Weiwei. After the State Department quietly added some of the Magnitsky assailants onto a visa blacklist (largely to dissuade the Senate from putting the Magnitsky bill to a vote), the message from Moscow became clear: Go after Magnitsky’s persecutors, and we’ll go after Bout’s prosecutors.

Now the nuclear scientist. A fortnight ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a game-changing report on Iran’s nuclear program, citing evidence that Iran had already obtained “dual use” nuclear equipment and materials as well as a “nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network.” Moreover, the agency found, Iran was working on “the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components,” including a a special detonator for starting a chain reaction. Assistance in developing that detonator had come from a “foreign expert” with deep background knowledge of such technology from his home country.

The Washington Post soon uncovered that the expert was in fact Vyacheslav Danilenko, a 76-year-old Russian nuclear scientist who spent the late 1950s and early 1960s working in one of the Soviet Union’s top nuclear research facilities, Chelyabinsk-70. Danilenko’s expertise lay in the miniaturization of nuclear weapons so that they could be fitted in transportable delivery devices such as missiles and artillery shells. He eventually found that by bombarding graphite with shockwaves, the kind that trigger nuclear explosions when passed through plutonium or enriched uranium, the result was synthetic diamonds, or “nanodiamonds”—too small for setting in engagement rings but ideal for industrial purposes.

After the Cold War, Danilenko found himself struggling to scrounge a living as a businessman in Ukraine. According to David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, the Russian started shopping his credentials to the Iranians in 1995, the same year that they’d contracted Russia to complete their much-delayed nuclear plant at Bushehr. Danilenko was contacted personally by Seyed Abbas Shahmoradi, the head of Iran’s Physics Research Center and thus the country’s underground a-bomb bigwig, weeks later. From there, the relationship was long and fruitful. According to the IAEA report, Danilenko helped Iran on building a nuclear facility and nanodiamond technology from 1996 to around 2002, also lecturing in the Islamic Republic on “explosion physics and its applications.” By 2000, the agency states, the Iranians were able to construct a “large explosives containment vessel” at a military complex at Parchin. According to Jack Caravelli, a former member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, the US knew that Danilenko was up to no good since the 1990s. No action was taken then because, as Caravelli informed Britain’s Sunday Times, “I’d be told we can’t do anything because it’s more important to keep [Boris] Yeltsin in place.” (The US is still paying a high price for looking the other way on Yeltsin’s foreign policy decisions.)

Since the IAEA report and the Washington Post story broke, Danilenko has kept his head below the parapet, declining Western media interview requests, although he did tell the Russian daily Kommersant, “I am not a nuclear scientist, and I am not the founder of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s response to the IAEA bombshell was a damp squib of denial: “a compilation of well-known facts that have intentionally been given a politicized intonation,” a foreign ministry statement read. The authors of the report were said to “resort to assumptions and suspicions, and juggle information with the purpose of creating the impression that the Iranian nuclear program has a military component.”

Russia and China are currently courting Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a courtship that the IAEA disclosures will do nothing to cool. Moscow has also threatened to block any new sanctions proposed against Iran at the UN Security Council, although its own business dealings with Tehran are relatively minor compared to those of China.

Rather, the game now is one of diplomatic brinkmanship over self-interest. Putin wants payback for what he believes were a series of American slights to his sense of amour propre. The Libya intervention toppled Kremlin ally Muammar Qaddafi rather than merely impede his ability to slaughter his own people. Moreover, full-throated calls for regime change in Syria have led to a Russian veto on a UN Security Council resolution that would impose international sanctions on the Assad regime as the Kremlin continues to demand more “dialogue” with the Syrian opposition. Russia has worked overtime to quash another NATO intervention in the Middle East and has reportedly dispatched naval vessels to the port of Lattakia to foreclose on the possibility of one. Moscow holds an estimated $1 billion arms contract with Damascus and has largely recycled Syrian state media propaganda about the Syrian uprising being the work of “armed gangs” and terrorists. Add to this Washington’s palpable displeasure at the announcement that Putin would be returning to the presidency next year and we’re nearly back to the mid-2000s in terms of post–Cold War mutual suspicion.

What the IAEA disclosure and Moscow’s reaction to it demonstrate is that, from Washington’s perspective, the US-Russian “reset” was always dependent on appeasing a tetchy and narcissistic partner. More disconcerting for the Obama administration is Russia’s latest threat to scuttle the New START Treaty—thus far, the one tangible accomplishment of the reset—in retaliation for the placement of a American missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. First conceived by the Bush administration, then formerly rejected by both candidate and President Obama, the shield system is now set to move forward, with the placement of the first missile interceptors in Romania by 2015, then more in Poland by 2018. Bulgaria may also host them. The purpose of this project has always been clear: to counter any attack on Western territory that may be launched by Iran, not Russia. But clearly the country facilitating the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear weapons isn’t so terribly exercised about ICBMs aimed at Bucharest or Warsaw as it is by the prospect of NATO creeping right up to its own doorstep. Medvedev released a video statement last Wednesday that sounded a long way off from his gushing pro-Obama interview with the Financial Times last June (“no one wishes the re-election of Barack Obama as US president as I do”). “Sadly, the United States and its NATO partners,” the lame-duck president declared, “have no intention, at least for now, to take our concerns about the European missile defense into account.” Russia has vowed to build its own Iskander missile complexes right at Kaliningrad, near the Russian-Polish border.

Finally, for all his post-inaugural talk of restoring America’s stature in the world, President Obama would have to own a very poor definition of stature to accede lightly to last Sunday’s Duma election, which, even before it started, was characterized by widespread fraud, voter intimidation, and state-rigging. Liberal parties were banned from participating because of technicalities in their applications. Golos, Russia’s independent election monitor, was fined $1,000 for producing an interactive map on its website displaying areas where election violations had been reported and the head of the organization was then arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and detained for 12 hours on the eve of the vote. Internationally circulated YouTube videos show ballots arriving one-third full at polling stations, election officials filling out ballots for United Russia, and “carousels” of buses transporting repeat voters around the country. In the end, United Russia failed to win a majority, and thousands took to the streets of Moscow in protest. They clashed not only with OMON riot police, ever on hand to help “manage” democracy, but also with members of Nashi, the Kremlin-engineered youth movement that combines the uniform thuggery of both the Soviet Komsomol and the Nazi brownshirts. Celebrated anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Even if something less than an Arab Spring moment, the popular backlash to this election has shown that Putinism is a creaking, fractured edifice that could collapse at any minute.

For the White House, then, it’s been a difficult awakening to reality. Obama thought he could placate Putin into adopting a new attitude of strategic cooperation and so never mind about human rights or Russian lawlessness. What Obama didn’t count on was that Putin misread these overtures as proof that he had finally found a real mug for an American president, someone as corrupt and criminal as himself. They were both wrong.

Michael Weiss is the communications and acting research director of the Henry Jackson Society.
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