You Just Can’t Trust a Russian

Journalist Con Coughlin, expert on international terrorism, writing in The Telegraph:

Just how far is the Obama administration prepared to go in its misguided attempt to befriend the Kremlin? First, it caved in to Russian pressure and cancelled the missile defence shield planned for Eastern Europe. Now it is prepared to turn a blind eye to Moscow’s somewhat cavalier attitude to the rule of law and respect for human rights.

All these blandishments are being offered in the forlorn hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more constructive role in resolving the threat posed by Iran’s illicit nuclear programme. President Barack Obama has ordered his officials to pursue a more pragmatic relationship with Moscow – which last March led Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, to make a clumsy attempt to repair relations by presenting Sergei Lavrov, her opposite number, with a joke “reset” button.

But if Mr Obama thinks that grand gestures can persuade the Russians to ditch decades of anti-American hostility, he should think again.

For, as Mrs Clinton discovered when she visited Moscow this week, while the Russians are more than happy to accept Washington’s goodwill gestures, they are less forthcoming when it comes to responding in kind.

To be fair to Mrs Clinton, she had good cause to believe that she might cajole the Russians to take a more combative approach to Iran, after last month’s inconclusive summit in Geneva, during which American officials held their first face-to-face meeting with their Iranian counterparts since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Russians, who have spent the past decade developing an important strategic dialogue with Tehran, were deeply embarrassed by the revelation that Iran had secretly developed a second uranium enrichment plant at Qom. Consequently, the US delegation was delighted to see the Russians giving the Iranians a hard time in Geneva about their oversight. This also led the other nations represented at the talks – including Britain – to conclude that Moscow might now be more amenable to supporting a new round of UN sanctions against Tehran, in the event that they are deemed necessary.

But the Russians had clearly had a change of heart by the time Mrs Clinton arrived in Moscow this week. Far from hearing support for the kind of “crippling” economic sanctions that Mrs Clinton believes are warranted if Iran refuses to freeze its nuclear programme, she found herself subjected to a lecture by Mr Lavrov, who argued that further sanctions could prove counter-productive, and that what was needed was more time for the negotiating process to take its course.

This is the last thing Washington wants. Negotiations between the West and Iran have been taking place for the past seven years, but all that has been achieved is that the Iranians are now within months of acquiring the capability to build an atom bomb.

The Russians are under no illusions about the potential threat this would pose. But having worked closely with Iran’s nuclear experts on construction of the controversial Bushehr nuclear reactor in the Gulf, they probably have a better understanding than most Western governments on just how far advanced the country is with its quest for nuclear weapons, and can adjust their diplomatic response accordingly.

Even suggestions by Mrs Clinton’s officials that Washington was prepared to tone down its criticism of Moscow’s human rights abuses failed to have the desired effect. This is because the regime that currently holds power in Moscow senses an opportunity to exploit the goodwill emanating from the White House to consolidate further its hold on power.

Anyone who thinks that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev can be persuaded to respond in kind to Mr Obama’s overtures of friendship should take another look at the Kremlin’s continuing repression of political dissidents. Earlier this week, it unleashed the attack dogs of the nationalist Nashi youth movement to berate a prominent journalist who had published an article that criticised the Soviet Union’s conduct during the Second World War.

Nor is this repressive mindset confined to events taking place within Russian borders. The report by the EU Commission into the causes of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008, which was published earlier this week, provides a disturbing insight into the bullying tactics that Moscow employed to provoke the Georgians into launching their ill-fated attack on South Ossetia.

The EU investigators found that the Russians provided the anti-Georgian rebels with military training and equipment, as well as giving them Russian passports. Russian “volunteers and mercenaries” also entered Georgian territory illegally to encourage the South Ossetians to rebel against the Georgian government. The report concludes that none of Russia’s various reasons for invading Georgian territory – including Moscow’s allegations that the Georgians committed genocide – were justified.

Moscow launched its intervention into South Ossetia and Abkhazia because it regards the southern Caucasus as its natural sphere of influence, even though Georgia’s democratically elected government sees the country’s ultimate destiny as lying more with Brussels than Moscow.

Now that he has won the Nobel peace prize, Mr Obama, no doubt, believes that he will prevail in his attempts to end the atmosphere of mutual antipathy that has defined relations between the US and Russia. But that requires the Russians to embrace his overtures, not exploit them.

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