The Cable

Russia threatens to wreck the reset

Russia has threatened the Obama administration that it will end cooperation on Iran and prevent the transfer of material to Afghanistan if Congress passes a law criticizing Russian human rights practices.

The White House argues that the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations has had three positive results: the New START nuclear reductions treaty, Moscow's cooperation in sanctioning Iran, and approval (for a price) for U.S. military goods to transit Russian territory on the way to Afghanistan. But Russia is now using two of those three points as leverage to pressure the administration to get Congress not to pass a bill that would ban visas for Russian officials implicated in human rights crimes.

The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

The administration admitted the Russian threats in its official comments on the bill, obtained by the The Cable.

"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the document stated. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."

"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."

The Washington Post first reported the existence of the administration's comments today and led with the news that the State Department has quietly put Russian officials connected with the Magnitsky killing on a visa blacklist.

The blacklist appears to be a way for the administration to preempt further legislation. "Secretary Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergey Magnitskiy from traveling to the United States. The Administration, therefore, does not see the need for this additional legislation," the administration said in its comments.

But in fact, the current bill no longer just includes officials connected to the Magnitsky case. The Senate version of the bill includes officials connected to a range of human rights cases in Russia, including the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an imprisoned Russian dissident.

The main sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), said in an interview today with The Cable that he was now working to address the administration's concerns and he was not sure when the bill would see a committee markup or floor consideration.

"I'm working with the administration, working with the committee, and working with my fellow senators to determine how to proceed," he said. "Two things can change strategy: One is what happens in Russia, one is what happens in the State Department. Both are fluid at this point."

Meanwhile, the administration has another problem with the reset -- it must find a way to get Congress to repeal the 1974 "Jackson-Vanik" law, which was imposed to penalize the Soviet Union for its treatment of Jewish emigrants. That law stands in the way of designating Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which is part of Moscow's bid to join the WTO.

NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Moscow, told The New Republic last month that he was open to the idea of some new law to pressure Russia on human rights as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik.

"Jackson-Vanik is an outdated mechanism," he said. "Let's have an updated mechanism that is more appropriate for 2011."

It's extremely doubtful that the GOP-led House would grant Russia PNTR status no matter what, meaning that the Magnitsky Act's value as a bargaining chip may be minimal. Either way, it's clear that the Obama administration places great value on maintaining the gains of the reset and doesn't want anything to get in the way.

"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in May."It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States."

The Cable

Here we go again: State Department to meet with North Koreans in New York

The United States and North Korea will hold their first direct talks since December 2009, as the Obama administration explores ways to return to multilateral talks on the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan is already on the way to New York for the talks, which are supposed to happen either Thursday or Friday, according to State Department officials. The State Department hasn't announced its delegation to the talks, but we're told by two informed sources that Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the State Department's special representative for North Korea, is expected to participate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the delegation.

Following the Bosworth-Kim meeting, the North Korean delegation will meet with a group of U.S. experts and academics organized under the banner of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), led on this project by former diplomat Donald Zagoria. NCAFP is hosting the meetings, as they did in October 2009, when North Korean negotiator Ri Gun came to New York under similar circumstances. At that time, Zagoria was joined by former diplomat George Schwab, Korea Society president Evans Revere, and former Ambassador to China Winston Lord.

Ri was spotted at the Beijing Airport with the North Korean delegation.

In a short phone interview, Zagoria told The Cable that the experts' meeting with the North Korean delegation was scheduled for Monday, Aug. 1, as a "Track 2" discussion -- diplo-speak for unofficial talks conducted by trusted private individuals. He declined to speak about the bilateral meeting, only saying that the experts' meetings had clear boundaries and realistic expectations.

"We started these meetings in 2003. We've had a number since then when it was possible," Zagoria said. "We hope to have frank discussions on the all the relevant issues. Our goal is to help both sides clearly understand each other's positions."

Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator who met with the North Koreans in Germany in March, told The Cable that the talks could signal the Obama administration's willingness to move away from its policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to waiting for the North Koreans to make positive moves while strengthening its alliances with Japan and South Korea.

The New York meetings are the second step of a three-step process to resume multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program, said Wit. The first step was for the North Koreans and South Koreans to resume discussions, which has already occurred. The second step is for the United States and North Korea to meet. And the final step is to resume the Six-Party Talks, which also involve China, Russia, and Japan.

Taking that third step won't be easy. The Obama administration has made clear it won't return to the Six-Party Talks until the North agrees to abide by its previous commitments on denuclearization. The DPRK now says that denuclearization must be achieved by both sides simultaneously and has started an ambitious uranium enrichment program.

Wit said that despite the gap in positions and the aggressive North Korean behavior, the United States should act now to jumpstart negotiations rather than allow the security situation on the Korean Peninsula to deteriorate further and let the North Korean nuclear program advance unchecked.

"We're rapidly approaching a point where we're going to have to make a serious decision about what we're going to do about their [uranium program]," said Wit. "So that means seriously considering some incentives, like reactor assistance.... It's something we've got to deal with before it gets out of hand."

Victor Cha, a former NSC director for Asia, said that North Korea's bad behavior since the Six-Party Talks were abandoned in 2008 shouldn't give anyone confidence that they are negotiating in good faith.

"It has been almost three years since a full round of Six-Party Talks, and since the last round, the North has done just about every heinous act in violation of the letter and spirit of the agreements that had been negotiated," he said. "No one expects North Korea is serious about denuclearization, and Pyongyang has done nothing during Obama's tenure to demonstrate otherwise."

The Obama administration has been quietly putting pressure on the South Korean government to relax its demands for an apology from North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan warship and its shelling of a South Korean island, Cha said. The administration believes that North Korea will be less aggressive if talks are underway, he said.

"So there are clear tactical reasons for the U.S. to re-engage. But does anyone have a strategy? Pundits will call for a bigger and better agreement this time, but after 25 years and two agreements in 1994 and 2005, I am less confident that such an agreement is attainable," he said.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland set the expectations for this week's meetings low in Monday's press briefing.

"We see this as a preliminary session where we're going to lay out very clearly our expectations for what will be necessary to not only resume Six-Party Talks, but to improve direct engagement between the U.S. and the DPRK," said Nuland.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters during Clinton's trip to Asia, said that China was on board with a more active policy of engaging North Korea.

"I think despite the fact that China, in meetings with the United States, will rarely displays open displeasure, I think you can sense behind the scenes, there is substantial unhappiness with what's transpired with respect to Pyongyang's intransigence and provocative actions," the official said.