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Dick Cheney gave a speech yesterday that included pointed references to Russia, a nation that the administration once hailed as a key strategic partner but now acknowledges as a potential problem for the US. Cheney made clear that the US would no longer gloss over actions by Russian president Vladimir Putin to nationalize industries and suppress dissent, especially since Russia has proven itself obstructionist in addressing Iranian nuclear proliferation and corrupt in its previous dealings with Saddam Hussein:
Vice President Dick Cheney today delivered the Bush administration's strongest rebuke of Russia to date, saying the Russian government "unfairly and improperly restricted" people's rights and suggesting that it sought to use the country's vast oil and gas resources as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."
"In many areas of civil society — from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties — the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people," Mr. Cheney said in a speech before European leaders in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. "Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive, and could begin to affect relations with other countries."
Mr. Cheney's remarks, which officials in Washington said had been heavily vetted and therefore reflected the administration's current thinking on Russia, appeared to lay down new markers for a relationship that has become strained and could become significantly more so in the months ahead. The remarks came amid an international confrontation over Iran's nuclear programs, where the United States has tried to enlist Russia's help in pressuring or punishing Tehran. Mr. Cheney's criticisms would seem to complicate those efforts, but they could also reflect a growing impatience with Russia's unwillingness to back stronger measures against the Iranians, like sanctions. Mr. Cheney did not mention Iran in his speech.
Mr. Cheney's remarks also previewed what is shaping up as a tense meeting between Mr. Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin as part of the gathering of the Group of Eight leading industrial democracies in St. Petersburg in July. Some in Washington, notably Senator John McCain, have called on Mr. Bush to boycott the meeting as a signal of displeasure with Mr. Putin's anti-democratic course, though Mr. Cheney did not address that matter on Thursday.
McCain has it more right than the administration in this case. Russia stopped being a diplomatic ally when its Iraqi envoys gave Saddam Hussein military intelligence during Operation Iraqi Freedom, let alone the deep Russian participation in the UN Oil-For-Food corruption. The G-8 meeting in Russia will strengthen Putin's poltical standing in Russia, a development which may have been in our interest six years ago but clearly today is not.
Russia has earned our mistrust in other ways as well. They have continued their partnership with China to protect the nuclear ambitions of Iran. Just as with Saddam Hussein, the lack of Russian resolve in stopping the Iranian nuclear project almost guarantees a more muscular response to Teheran's provocations. Just as with Iraq in 2002-3, if the Russians and Chinese united with the West to impose economic sanctions on Iran, the mullahcracy would have to fold. Instead, Russia actively works against the interests of the US and the West.
Belarus provides another sticking point. The Russians continue to prop up Alexander Lukashenko, the last of the Stalinist strongment in the former Soviet republics. (Turkmenistan dictator Saparmyrat Niyazov may also qualify, but he's more strange than Stalinist.) Russian support has allowed Lukashenko to imprison his political opponents and stage elections so egregiously corrupt that only Moscow recognizes them as legitimate. For a nation that expresses shock at Cheney's demand for increasing democratization, they seem to get over their bruised egos when it comes to Europe's last dictator.
The US has to get tough on Russia, and Cheney's speech is a step in the right direction. If Putin wants to continue to thwart US foreign policy and nuclear non-proliferation, then we need to demonstrate consequences for those actions. Bush should take McCain's advice and make other plans for travel in July than St. Petersburg, and he should convince his fellow G-8 members to join him.Sphere It View blog reactions
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