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Kirchick Questions US-Russia Partnership

In the "New York Daily News," RFE/RL correspondent James Kirchick writes that "Russia continues to be marked by domestic authoritarianism and aggression beyond its borders."


"I Spy a Nuisance, Not a Partner: Beyond the Espionage Case, Russia is Belligerent and Defiant"

By James Kirchick

The FBI arrest last week of 10 alleged Russian spies has produced a shrug of the shoulders on both sides of the Atlantic. On Wednesday, a senior Russian government official told the state-run Interfax news agency that the incident "will not negatively affect Russian-U.S. relations."

Such soothing tones have been echoed in Washington, where The New York Times reported that the White House "expressed no indignation that its putative partner was spying on it."

Many analysts are echoing this official nonchalance. Writing in the Financial Times, King's College London Prof. Anatol Lieven concluded that the brouhaha is but a "temporary rift" in Russo-American relations, and should do nothing to forestall the fruitful development of the "west scaling back its ambitions in the former Soviet Union with Russia's growing realization that it needs a new partnership with its former U.S. and European rivals."

While many of the details of the Russian "illegals," covert agents assuming false identities without diplomatic cover, are indeed amusing, they obscure a more important story: Far from becoming a more responsible international citizen in response to Washington's outreach - "the reset" - Russia continues to crack down on internal dissent, threaten its neighbors and impede efforts at reining in rogue states. Laughing this incident away as but a minor blip in relations between the United States and Russia does a disservice to both countries, not to mention the Russian people.

The case Lieven makes for improved Russian behavior on the world stage is typical of Kremlin apologists. He says that Russia deserves credit because, since the initiation of the reset, it decided to sign the new START treaty on nuclear arms reduction, "supported more pressure on Iran," "increased help for U.S. and NATO communications to Afghanistan" and, "perhaps most importantly, Moscow has not taken advantage of the deep recessions in the Baltic states to stir up unrest among Russian minorities there - as it easily might have done."

This list of contributions to international peace and goodwill would be heartening were they in any way meaningful. Regarding the much-vaunted agreement on nuclear arsenals, both the U.S. and Russia have been steadily reducing their stockpiles for years, and the new treaty does not address Russia's numerical advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, the sort that can be used in a battlefield scenario. As for Iran, Russia would only sponsor last month's UN Security Council resolution after it had been heavily watered down and the U.S. government agreed to lift sanctions on four Russian businesses engaged in the supply of military hardware to the Islamic Republic.

On Afghanistan, it's true that Russia decided last year to allow up to 10 NATO flights per day over its territory. But since the signing of that agreement, fewer than 300 such flights have taken place, a number that should be at least 10 times higher. Furthermore, Russia has repeatedly tried to coerce the provisional government in the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan to evict an American air base crucial to the NATO supply effort. And if the greatest evidence of Russian beneficence that Lieven can muster is what Russia hasn't done - namely, avoid the temptation to stir up ethnic tensions in the Baltics - then that's hardly an expression of confidence.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to be marked by domestic authoritarianism and aggression beyond its borders. The harassment and murder of journalists and human rights advocates continues unabated. Press freedom has declined precipitously since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power 10 years ago. Baton-wielding riot police regularly break up peaceful demonstrations. A recently "leaked" Russian foreign policy document cites NATO enlargement - the consensual process by which sovereign states, once held captive behind the Iron Curtain, decide to join an alliance of free and democratic nations - as the greatest threat to Russian security, underscoring the paranoid mind-set that dominates Kremlin thinking. And nearly two years after its invasion of Georgia, Russia continues to occupy 20% of the country's territory, has illegally recognized two separatist provinces as "independent" states and stands in violation of a European Union-brokered ceasefire.

There are many delicious details about the Russian spy scandal, from the ham-handed tactics of the would-be James Bonds to the conspiracy theory-laden, Spanish language columns of accused mole Vicky Pelaez. These make it easy for those with rose-colored glasses to wave the incident away as a distraction from the far greater task of "resetting" our relations with Russia. But a decade of Putinism at home and abroad provides very little to laugh about.