For years, the U.S. government has insisted that a planned missile defense system in Europe served to protect America's allies against attacks from Iran. Now that the nuclear threat from Iran may be receding, Russia, which has always seen the system as a menace to its own security, has suggested scrapping the program. But the White House on Thursday said the missile shield, otherwise known as the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA), isn't going anywhere.
"Our plans regarding missile defense in Europe and our commitment to EPAA as the U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense remain unchanged," National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson told The Cable.
The idea of scaling back NATO's missile defense system was floated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday following a meeting with Russian and NATO counterparts. "If the Iranian nuclear program is placed under the complete and tight control of the IAEA, the reasons that are now given for the creation of the European segment of the missile defense system will become invalid," said Lavrov.
The Syrian government is required to provide international chemical weapons inspectors "immediate and unfettered" access to any site in Syria starting Oct. 1 and complete the destruction of its chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by Nov. 1, according to a decision to be voted Friday afternoon by the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The arrangements and timetables are part of a U.S.-Russian proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. The U.N. Security Council is expected to endorse the technical procedures on Friday night.
The deal marks the culmination of several days of intensive negotiation between Washington and Moscow over the details of a chemical weapons inspection. It sets the stage for a dramatic scene in the U.N. Security Council, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will cast their vote on the first major Security Council resolution to be adopted by the Security Council following more than two years of violence in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met under the steely gaze of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose portrait hung over their negotiating table at U.N. headquarters, and hammered out their latest agreement Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution to scrap Syria's chemical weapons.
The presidential portrait was a subtle reminder that Putin's top diplomats hold the home-court advantage at the United Nations. Lavrov headed Russia's U.N. delegation for a decade; Putin's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, has served here for more than seven years. Together, they enjoy vastly greater experience navigating the intricacies of the U.N. Security Council parliamentary rules than their American counterparts. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, a former member of the Russia diplomatic delegation, was actually a U.N. employee.
America's national security team is hardly composed of novices on U.N. matters. As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry frequently engaged in U.N. diplomacy. Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security advisor, is one of the longest-serving American envoys to the U.N. -- and a willing and able sparring partner of Churkin. Samantha Power, while still untested around the Security Council's horseshoe table, has been a keen student of the United Nations for years, reporting from the field in Africa and the Balkans and authoring a biography of slain U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Still, for most of the past two years, Lavrov and Churkin have largely defined the rules of the game in the U.N. Security Council, effectively constraining American and European attempts to use the U.N. Security Council to apply economic or political pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The relatively toothless deal struck Thursday is just the latest example.
Russia's proposal for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to place his chemical weapons under international supervision and then destroy them is quickly gaining steam. Assad's government accepted the plan this morning. A few hours later, President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande announced that they'd seriously explore the proposal. It already has the backing of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a growing number of influential lawmakers from both parties. There's just one problem: the plan would be nearly impossible to actually carry out.
Experts in chemical weapons disposal point to a host of challenges. Taking control of Assad's enormous stores of the munitions would be difficult to do in the midst of a brutal civil war. Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch or brought into the country from the U.S., and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more. The work itself would need to be done by specially-trained military personnel or contractors. Guess which country has most of those troops and civilian experts? If you said the U.S., you'd be right.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
Alastair Grant - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Russia's announcement Wednesday that it will not participate in the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the threat of loose nuclear materials is a slap in the face to President Barack Obama's effort to make arms control a feature of his "reset" policy with Russia, two top advisors to Mitt Romney said Thursday.
The New York Times described Moscow's move to end the 20 year, $8 billion program, started in 1993 by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), to secure loose nukes in Russia and decommission old Russian military inventories as "a potentially grave setback in the already fraying relationship between the former cold war enemies." In a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday, the Romney advisors said that the news is only the latest indication that the Obama administration has misread Russia's intentions and actions.
"The reset policy has been a complete disaster, partly because the administration has simply not understood how to deal with Russia," said Romney advisor and former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim. "Russia is pursuing a classic policy that Russia has pursued since at least Peter the Great... If they perceive you to be strong, they will work with you. They do not perceive us to be strong."
Russia can be worked with, as evidenced by U.S.-Russian cooperation to transfer military supplies through Russia to Afghanistan, he said. But the Russian exit from Nunn-Lugar, as well as Moscow's decision last month to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development, shows that the Kremlin no longer feels the need to work with the United States constructively.
"This administration, because the Russians perceive it to be weak, it not in a position to move these guys," said Zakheim. "The whole reset program is a complete flop."
Dov's son Roger Zakheim, another top Romney advisor who also works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), said the end of Nunn-Lugar deals a blow to the administration's overall nonproliferation agenda.
"The administration touted New START and we were critical of that because it was a victory for the Russians, who gave no concessions... This to me is another natural consequence of the fact the Russians are the only ones that gain fruit from this relationship," he said.
"This president is trying to get down to zero and remove WMD from across the world; now he can't even get the bilateral cooperation that's been done for years. [His agenda] is kind of evaporating on his own watch."
As president, Obama has made arms control a central feature of his reset policy with Russia, spending enormous amounts of time and political capital to push for ratification of New START in 2010. He also has made securing loose nuclear material a feature of his foreign-policy agenda, hosting a 44-nation summit on the issue in Washington the same year.
As a senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006, Obama joined with Lugar to sponsor a bill to expand the Nunn-Lugar to include conventional weapons.
In a statement Wednesday, Lugar said that in August meetings with Russian officials, the Russian government told him they wanted changes to the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement but that he was surprised by the announcement Russia was ending its participation in the program altogether.
In August alone, the program helped the securing of six nuclear weapons train transport shipments and destroyed 153.2 metric tons of chemical weapons nerve agent, Lugar said.
"The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated, 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) destroyed, 498 ICBM silos eliminated, 191 ICBM mobile launchers destroyed, 155 bombers eliminated, 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) destroyed, 492 SLBM launchers eliminated, 684 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) eliminated, 33 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles destroyed, 194 nuclear test tunnels eliminated, 3192.3 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agent destroyed, 590 nuclear weapons transport train shipments secured, security at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites upgraded, 39 biological threat monitoring stations built and equipped," the statement read. "Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus are nuclear weapons free as a result of cooperative efforts under the Nunn-Lugar program. Those countries were the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers in the world."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the State Department had proposed an extension for the program that was unacceptable to Moscow. "Our American partners know that their proposal is at odds with our ideas about the forms and basis for building further cooperation in that area," the statement said, adding that Russia needed "a more modern legal framework."
TAMPA - Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was right when he called Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and a Romney administration would confront Moscow on its poor record on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, two top foreign-policy advisors to the GOP candidate said Tuesday.
"Russia is a significant geopolitical foe. Governor Romney recognizes that," Romney advisor Rich Williamson said at a Tuesday afternoon event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "That's not to say they are the same sort of direct military threat as they were."
Williamson, joined on the panel by top advisor Pierre-Richard Prosper, said that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has made strategic opposition to the West and the United States in particular a premier plank of its agenda. A Romney administration would end the Russian "reset" and confront Russia on Syria, Georgia, Iran, and several other issues, he said.
"They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable," he said. "So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they're our geopolitical foe' don't understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don't understand history. We're better to be frank and honest."
Ronald Reagan called Russia an "evil empire" but was still able to negotiate nuclear reductions with the Soviet Union, Williamson said.
"They weren't so precious and sensitive not to work with us when we have mutual interests," he said. "The reset has failed. They are crowding out civil society, they are trampling human rights, and they are opposed to us in a number of interests... We have to reset the failed reset policy."
Prosper focused on the controversial elections that returned Putin to the presidency last December and the ongoing clampdown on opposition and activist groups.
"Russia is calling itself a democracy but it is not behaving like a democracy," he said. "When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of peace? When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of humanity?"
Also on the panel were Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist blacklisted for his support of the Magnitsky bill, legislation to sanction Russian human rights violators that is being linked in Congress to a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.
The GOP draft platform makes it the official policy of the Republican Party to support passage of the Magnitsky bill.
"Russia should be granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations, but not without sanctions on Russia officials who have used the government to violate human rights," the platform states. "We support enactment of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia."
The Pentagon policy shop will soon have a new official in charge of Russia, Evelyn Farkas, replacing Celeste Wallander, the previous deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Euraisa (RUE).
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller announced the Farkas appointment in a memo to staff Tuesday, obtained by The Cable. He also announced that Chris Skaluba has been appointed the principal director for Europe and NATO policy, a job he had been doing in an acting capacity, and Alice Friend will begin work next week as the new principal director for Africa.
Farkas moved over the Pentagon policy shop earlier this year, before that she was the senior advisor on public-private partnerships to Adm. James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander, U.S. European Command. A former professor at the Command and Staff College of the Marine Corps University, Farkas has served in a variety of positions, including as executive director of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in 2008. She speaks fluent Hungarian and German.
"This past spring, she served concurrently as Special Advisor for the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit, where she helped lead DoD's effort to manage the successful summit in Chicago. She has extensive experience working on Capitol Hill, including 8 years as a Professional Staff Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee," Miller wrote to his staff. "She will assume the DASD RUE duties on August 27th."
Farkas will report up to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet. Jennifer Walsh, who had been handling the DASD responsibilities, will return to her previous role as principal director for RUE under Farkas.
Skaluba took over the duties of principal director for NATO and Europe in an acting capacity when Julianne Smith was tapped to be Vice President Joe Biden's new deputy national security advisor in April. Smith was replacing Brian McKeon, who was promoted to be the NSC chief of staff. Skaluba continues to report up to DASD for NATO and Europe Jim Townsend.
Friend most recently served as the senior advisor to Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Kathleen Hicks and has also served as a special assistant to former Under Secretary Michèle Flournoy and as country director for Pakistan. She will report up to DASD for Africa Amanda Dory."Please join Kath and me in offering warm congratulations to Evelyn, Alice and Chris!" wrote Miller.
The House of Representatives voted 407-5 Thursday to bar the Pentagon from spending any money on deals with Rosoboronexport, the main Russian arms broker that is also providing weapons to the Syrian regime.
The vote came in the context of the debate over the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) offered an amendment to the bill that says the Defense Department may not "enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport."
"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran told The Cable. "The United States does not condone the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Furthering contracts with Rosoboronexport contradicts our nation's commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy."
Congressional outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport have been building since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.
Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helipcopters, which the Afghan military needs.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who has been leading the congressional fight against Rosoboronexport, tried to add two related amendments to the Russian trade bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee July 18. One would have expanded the Magnitsky Act, a related piece of human rights legislation, to include those involved in transferring weapons to the Syrian government. Cornyn withdrew that amendment at the request of the committee leadership.
A second Cornyn amendment would have delayed the implementation of the U.S. granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status until the administration could certify that Russia had ceased providing the Syrian regime with lethal weapons. That amendment failed by an 8-16 vote.
On Friday, Syrian-American groups in Washington praised the House for moving to end the Pentagon's business with Rosoboronexport.
"The American-Syrian Council has been working hard to emphasize in Congress how important it is that the United States government send a signal to Russia that continued military support for the Assad regime is a red line" said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a member of the council. "We will work to secure the necessary votes in the Senate and move quickly to have this DoD contract with Rosoboronexport terminated as quickly as possible."
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved today a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status as well as a bill to punish Russian human rights violators, but time is running out to pass the legislation through the full House and Senate.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-MT) called on Congress to quickly pass the bills before lawmakers leave town at the end of this month for the long August recess. Russia's accession to the WTO is imminent, and unless the United States grants Russia PNTR status, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage, he argued.
"There is no time to waste; America risks being left behind," Baucus said. "If we miss that deadline [of Russia's WTO accession], American farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO that already have PNTR with Russia. American workers will lose the jobs created to China, Canada and Europe when Russia, the world's seventh largest economy, joins the WTO and opens its market to the world."
Baucus also trumpeted the fact that the PNTR bill is now officially joined with the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in June. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators.
"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today. The chairman's revised markup includes the version of the Magnitsky bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last month under [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Chairman [John] Kerry's leadership," Baucus said.
Baucus and Kerry co-authored an op-ed in Politico today urging Congress to move quickly to pass the PNTR-Magnitsky package.
The Russian government is vehemently opposed to the Magnitsky bill and has threatened broad retaliation. A group of Russian senators came to Washington last week to accuse Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison allegedly by torture, of being a tax cheat.
The next step is for the package to be passed in the House, because PNTR is a revenue-related bill and all revenue bills have to originate in the House. Several congressional staffers told The Cable that Ways and Means committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is now the biggest obstacle to moving forward quickly because he wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnistky bill.
"This has to be done by August recess," one senior senate staffer told The Cable. "It's all coming down to Camp. Camp is taking this line of being a trade purist and wanting a clean bill. The Senate is ready to do this -- the question is whether the House get its ducks in a row."
Camp said in a statement Wednesday that he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said she wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnitsky bill, but for a different reason. She supports the Magnitsky bill doesn't support PNTR status for Russia.
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning, but not about the WTO or human rights, according to a White House statement.
"President Obama called Russian President Putin today to discuss the developing situation in Syria," the statement said. "The two presidents noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation."
Four members of Russia's upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.
Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.
On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.
Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky's captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.
Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.
"I'll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That's not a system of justice that I'm familiar with," McCain said.
In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky's death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.
According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn't prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.
"The injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.
Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky's death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.
"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,'" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don't rush our investigation' and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."
Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.
The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia's imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.
Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.
Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We're not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there's no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.
"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it's pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation. He said he was not even aware they were in town.
But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators' claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.
"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It's been over two years. They should take care of their own business."
At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that's just not the case.
"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are still in Moscow after P5+1 talks with Iran failed to make substantive progress. The parties managed to stave off a total breakdown, but the two days of negotiations resulted only in a commitment on all sides to "continue negotiations at a technical level."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has informed the White House that he will not be coming to the United States for next week's G-8 summit at Camp David.
Putin will instead send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the meeting. Putin and Medvedev completed their job swap on Tuesday when the Russian parliament confirmed Medvedev to return to the position he held last time Putin was president. Putin was also sworn in as President on Tuesday and President Barack Obama called him Wednesday to congratulate him on his return to the top job in the Russian Federation.
A senior administration official told The Cable that Putin's ongoing formation of the new Russian government was the main reason he will not be coming to the United States.
"Putin will not attend the G-8," the official told The Cable. "He has to finalize the cabinet in the new Russian government. However he will meet with the president on the margins of the G-20 summit in mid-June."
Also, the domestic optics would bad for Putin if he goes to the United States as his first overseas trip as president. Putin criticized the U.S. government throughout the campaign and accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of fomenting unrest inside Russia during the election campaign.
For the administration, Putin's absence cuts both ways. Medvedev is seen in Washington as more amenable to working with the U.S. government than Putin and has good relationships with Obama administration officials. But Putin's decision to not attend delays what would have been his first meeting with Obama as president and removes a chance for the two leaders to promote an image of cooperation in the wake of tensions between Washington and Moscow that surrounded the Russian elections.
Russia, which is not a NATO member but has attended past summits, is also sitting out the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21, also due to the timing of the event, according to Obama administration officials.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon traveled to Moscow and met with Putin last week.
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "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."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man" and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) came out strongly this week for a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators and urged his committee counterpart John Kerry (D-MA) to stop stalling action on the bill.
At the March 27 SFRC business meeting, Lugar read aloud a long statement in support of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Several senators, now including Lugar, have said publicly that unless the Magnitsky bill can become law, they will oppose the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that currently stands as the only U.S. law specifically aimed at holding the Russian government accountable for its human rights record.
Without repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the United States can't grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for its deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"Mr. Chairman, several committee members have urged committee consideration of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) for his hard work on the Magnitsky Act. This bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin's staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting," Lugar said.
The next SFRC business meeting should be in mid-April. If the committee approves the bill, which is likely, it would then be sent to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a bill to grant Russia PNTR status and repeal Jackson-Vanik. Finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MO) traveled to Russia last month on the issue and a finance committee staff delegation leaves for Russia March 31.
If both bills are reported out of their respective committees successfully, supporters of the Magnitsky Act would then advocate for the two bills to be joined together or voted on in rapid succession, so that they would be sent to the president's desk as a package.
The administration opposes the Magnitsky bill and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul recently called it "redundant" because the State Department has already issued visa restrictions for the officials it believes are guilty in the Magnitsky case. But leading Russian opposition figures argue that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without some replacement human rights legislation would undermine the fight for human rights in Russia.
Behind the scenes, the administration is negotiating with Cardin, the bill's main sponsor, on changes to the Magnitsky bill that would actually expand it to cover all countries around the globe, not just Russia, two congressional aides close to the issue told The Cable.
The benefit of such a change for the administration would be that the bill could not be seen as targeting Russia only. The risk, according to aides, is that such a change could create conflicts with several other governments whose officials might falls under the bill's definition of human rights violators.
Publicly, McFaul has called for Jackson-Vanik to be replaced by a new democracy fund for Russia. He has said the administration requested to use leftover money -- about $150 million -- from an expired Russia enterprise fund to set up the new democracy initiative.
According to several congressional aides, that request is being held up by two Republican offices, Lugar's and the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Lugar supports the democracy fund, although not exactly as the administration envisions it. Ros-Lehtinen wants the money to be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Either way, supporters of the Magnitsky bill on Capitol Hill aren't keen on the idea and want to wait and see whether their drive to join the Magnitsky bill to the PNTR bill can succeed.
"Momentum is building for Magnitsky and people aren't really interested in setting up something new," a senior GOP Senate aide said. "We want to see where Magnitsky goes."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul got a little freaked out this week by the fact that reporters in Moscow are mysteriously turning up everywhere he goes. Today, he learned that the Russian government has been alerting reporters as to his whereabouts on a constant basis.
"Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar? They wouldn't tell me. Wonder what the laws are here for such things?" McFaul tweeted Thursday.
Unsure how the Russia press, which has been severely critical of McFaul, has been able to follow him so closely, he initially concluded they were spying on his personal communications.
"Welceom (sic) to my life. Press has right to film me anywhere. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?" McFaul tweeted. "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"
McFaul said that when he asked the "reporters" showing up at his meetings how they knew where he was, they wouldn't tell him.
Later Thursday, journalist Jace Foster tweeted back to McFaul to clue him in on how the Russian reporters always knew where to find him.
"Your schedule is fair game. We know it because Russian consulate watches you & releases your schedule," she tweeted. "Russia watches your Twitter account too, which is open to the public. Surely you know this."
McFaul seemed relieved to hear that Russian journalists are not tapping his phones. But he emphasized that the U.S. government does not tip off reporters in Washington about the travels of his Russian counterpart.
"I am new to the world of diplomacy and did not [know] this fact. Thanks. I know we do not do the same with Russian ambo in U.S.," McFaul tweeted. "Maybe I should start publishing my schedule? I am always happy to interact with press."
"Ambassador, if you feel it would help & make your life more secure, then perhaps posting when you are publicly available would help," Foster tweeted back.
Mitt Romney has created an international confrontation over his claim that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," but most national security leaders in Congress, including Republicans, simply don't think Russia deserves that stature.
Romney doubled down on his criticism of Russia and the Obama administration's handling of the U.S.-Russia relationship in a Tuesday op-ed for Foreign Policy, in which he again criticized Obama for telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a hot mic that he needed "space" on issues such as missile defense because he would have more "flexibility" after the November election. Medvedev said that Romney's comments "smell of Hollywood" and that presidential candidates "need to use one's head, one's good reason."
"It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House," Romney shot back.
On Capitol Hill, top Republicans have little praise for Medvedev or Russia and maintain that Moscow has played an unhelpful international role and represses its own citizens. But these lawmakers see Russia as a power in decline and therefore not worthy of the title of America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"I don't see them as our No. 1 strategic foe because they've got a weak economy and structurally are not very strong. China could potentially be more harming to our interests because of the growth of their economy and the growth of their military," Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.
Russia is in decline on many fronts, due to a lack of a moral direction by Kremlin combined with rampant corruption and a regime that's desperately trying to hang on to power, Graham said.
"I think Russia is behaving in a manner very inconsistent with being a mature member of the international community, but I see Russia as a declining power because they choose to embrace a model that never ended well in history. Instead of helping the world do things like get rid of Assad, they seem to be ambivalently or actively encouraging people to do bad things," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he agreed with Romney that Obama's comments about flexibility on missile defense were alarming, but he wouldn't say Russia was the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States.
"I think they are a strategic challenge," McCain said. "They continue to supply [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad while he slaughters Syrians and they continue to obviously oppose our missile-defense systems. They continue to be an oppressive and repressive regime.
"Fortunately in many ways they are declining. But this recent consolidation of power shows a lack of democracy there," McCain said.
In a Wednesday morning appearance on Fox and Friends, McCain expressed more support for Romney's Russia claim.
"I think in many respects [they are the number one geopolitical foe]," McCain said. "Look at what they are doing in Syria right now... they continue to prop up North Korea and obviously now they have a president for life."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented the backsliding of democracy in Russia but also denied that Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe in the world.
"I wouldn't have put in the way Mitt Romney did, but I don't dismiss his thoughts," Lieberman told The Cable. "China's rising; Russia seems to be in a holding pattern but still quite strong militarily. And they have been in the way of progress in a lot of things going on in the world."
"The developments in Russia have been one of the most disappointing things that have happened in the world over the last 20 years or so," he said. "When the Berlin Wall fell and the first wave of Russian democracy came, I was very optimistic. But both internally they are a very repressive society and externally, it's better than the Cold War but we're still bumping into Russia too many times, as in Syria."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not nearly as bad as Romney makes it seem and actually has potential for productivity and progress.
"Russia's cooperating with us on some things, it's not on others. The threat of religious extremism is not centered in Russia; it's centered in South Asia and the Middle East and that is an enormous and time-consuming challenge for all of our national security enterprises." Kerry said. "So I think [Romney] is vastly and significantly off target as well as in terms of potential of the upsides with Russia if we move forward on a number of things."
In his original interview with CNN, Romney made clear that he doesn't see Russia as the number one immediate security challenge. He said Russia is the greatest American foe "in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran."
Four more senators joined the opposition to repealing the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions law against Russia on Friday, unless that repeal is accompanied by a new law specifically targeting human rights violators inside the Russian government.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) wrote a letter Friday to Senate Finance Committee heads Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to let them know that they oppose Baucus's effort to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law unless it is replaced with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Without repeal of the Jackson-Vanik law, U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, but the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for their deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"In the absence of the passage of the Magnitsky legislation, we will strongly oppose the lifting of Jackson-Vanik," the senators wrote. "Human rights abuses in Russia are widespread and severe, and a legitimate area of focus for U.S. foreign policy. For this reason, what is urgently needed is not merely the elimination of Jackson-Vanik, but its replacement with legislation that is appropriately tailored to the contemporary human rights problems facing the people of Russia. That is precisely the role that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would service."
The opposition to a straight repeal of Jackson-Vanik now includes these four senators, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), large portions of the Washington human rights community, and leading Russian opposition figures such as Solidarity movement leader Boris Nemtsov. Those who support repealing Jackson-Vanik without any replacement human-rights legislation include the Obama administration, large sections of the business community, and the Russian government.
Moscow has already praised and promoted the officials accused of torturing Magnitsky for their investigation into the case, and has now begun retrying Magnitsky for criminal tax violations -- even though he is dead.
"While some in the Russian government may be upset if the United States adopts the Magnitsky bill, we believe most Russians will be happy to see us deny the most abusive and corrupt individuals in their country the ability to travel and move their ill-gotten gains overseas," the senators wrote.
UPDATE: A Baucus spokesperson sent in the following statemet regarding Baucus's position on human rights in Russia as it relates to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik:
Chairman Baucus certainly shares the concerns about the human rights situation and he is working with his colleagues to find the best ways to address them. He has met with democracy and human rights activists in Russia and heard directly from them that one way to help improve both democracy and human rights is to repeal Jackson-Vanik and pass PNTR to remove an anti-America propaganda tool and open Russia to transparency. And he has expressed willingness to consider other legislation as well.
YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) announced in a hearing Thursday that he will mount an opposition to the repeal of U.S. trade sanctions on Russia, complicating the Obama administration's plan to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law.
The administration has begun the process of repealing the sanctions law, which prevents the U.S. from granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which in turn prevents U.S. businesses from taking full advantage of Russia's recent accession to the WTO. But several lawmakers and leading Russian opposition figures believe the United States shouldn't do that without replacing those sanctions with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul said this week that the administration no longer believes any such "weird linkage" is necessary to accompany the repeal of Jackson-Vanik. But Kyl, who led the Senate opposition to the New START treaty with Russia in 2010, promised there would be a fight over the Jackson-Vanik issue this year in the Congress.
"It isn't a slam-dunk," Kyl said in a Thursday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on the issue. "We still need to determine whether America is getting a good deal through Russia's WTO accession and whether more should be done to protect our interests."
Kyl said that Russia still hasn't ratified a bilateral investment treaty that would protect U.S. businesses there and complained that Russia fails to remit royalties to American firms, something not covered under WTO rules. He also said that Russia's "blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law is every bit as relevant today as it was decades ago."
"Human rights cannot be divorced from the discussion of our economic relationship with Russia, particularly since some of the most egregious cases of abuse involve citizens exercising their economic and commercial rights," Kyl said, referring to the Magnitsky case by name and expressing his support of the legislation. He charged that McFaul was "simply denying reality" in rejecting a connection between human rights and economics.
"When two parties enter into a contract, it's essential that both parties operate in good faith," Kyl said. "There is scant evidence that the Russian state operates in good faith. There's a troubling pattern of intimidation, disregard for the rule of law, fraudulent elections, human rights abuses, and government-sanctioned anti-Americanism."
The hearing was stacked with representatives of the business community. The witnesses were Samuel Allen, chairman and CEO of Deere & Company, Ronald Pollett, president and CEO of GE Russia, Watty Taylor, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, and Paul Williams, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It also included a long representative of the human rights community, Alan Larson, chairman of the board of Transparency International USA.
Committee chairman Max Baucus (R-MT), who traveled to Russia last month, is leading the drive in the Senate to repeal the law.
"Russia joining the World Trade Organization presents a lucrative opportunity for the United States economy and American jobs," Baucus said at the hearing. "We can all agree on that. We must all embrace rather than escape this opportunity."
"We must pass permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, to ensure our exporters can access the growing Russian market," Baucus said. "If the United States passes PNTR with Russia, U.S. exports to Russia are projected to double within five years. If Congress doesn't pass PNTR, Russia will join the WTO anyway and U.S. exporters will lose out to their Chinese and European competitors."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who is also a member of the Finance Committee, backed up Baucus at the hearing.
"I'd say to Senator Kyl and others who are sort of questioning this thing: We're still kind of talking past each other a little bit here and I think missing the point. Russia's going into the WTO," he said. "Russia's in the WTO. And if we don't lift Jackson-Vanik we're denying our own workers. That's all that happens here."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The United States shouldn't lift trade sanctions against Russia without replacing them with targeted actions against Russia's worst human rights violators, a top Russia opposition leader told The Cable today.
The Obama administration has been touting the fact that Russia's opposition leaders want America to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the United States from granting Russian Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR) and taking full advantage of Russia's new membership in the WTO. But according to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, co-chairman of the People's Freedom Party, also known as the "Solidarity" movement, the United States shouldn't do that without replacing those sanctions with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
"We are for replacement of Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky bill," Nemtsov told The Cable in a Wednesday interview.
"We believe that sanctions against the state are absolutely ineffective, absolutely anti-Russian and against the U.S.-Russian relationship, because for Putin, he can say Jackson-Vanik is not against the Russian state but against the Russian people, which is bad," he said. "Much more promising is adoption of the Congress of the Magnitsky bill and I strongly support this bill. It's absolutely easy."
Nemtsov noted that U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul said Tuesday that the administration would not support any human rights legislation as a replacement for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik. But Nemtsov said that will be viewed in Russia as a U.S. capitulation to Putin.
"I know that some people are against that, including McFaul and the White House, but I don't think this is good. Because for Putin, cancelling Jackson-Vanik means that he won," he said. "And when Russia has no rule of law system, no independent court system, and corrupt bureaucrats are absolutely safe in Putin's Russia. The only way to protect human rights in Russia is adopt such a bill as the Magnitsky bill, which is absolutely crucial for us."
Corrupt Russian bureaucrats shouldn't be able to visit the United States and buy property and invest, Netmsov said, arguing that the United States has to protect its reputation as standing up for human rights and the rule of law and not become complicit in the activities of corrupt officials.
Last week's election of Putin was neither free nor fair nor a reflection of the views of the Russian people, Nemtsov claimed. Opposition leaders didn't run, Putin chose the candidates and the terms, there were no debates, and fraud was widespread, he said.
"It was not an election at all. It was a special KGB operation for Putin's corrupt team to keep power in Russia," he said.
Nemtsov said he doesn't think the U.S.-Russia reset policy can continue under Putin because the president-elect's core message is that the United States and the State Department is working to undermine the Russian government and fund the opposition, a charge McFaul has repeated denied.
"Putin said that all of the problems in Russia come from the U.S. because the U.S. wants to colonize Russia. Of course it's stupid and sounds like paranoia, but that's what he says every day."
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama's administration will not support any human rights or democracy legislation in exchange for Congress repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, which is preventing Russia from getting top trade status with the United States, the U.S. envoy to Moscow said today.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, the former NSC senior director for Russia and a key architect of the administration's "reset" policy with Russia, was in Washington today --along with all other U.S. ambassadors -- in advance of a huge conference at the State Department Tuesday. He made clear, in two separate speaking events, that the administration's top trade priority in 2012 is to repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which has blocked Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR). However, the administration doesn't support any replacement for the law, such as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants but now stands in the way of lifting U.S.-Russian trade restrictions. Last year, the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case, and McFaul said that's enough.
"We believe that we can ban people from coming to this country that do grossly abusive things regarding human rights. And it was strengthened by a human rights executive order last August that we took to give additional authorities. So from our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," McFaul said at a Tuesday morning event on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a conservative policy organization. "We took this situation very seriously and we took action."
McFaul got into an impromptu debate at the FPI event about the Magnitsky Act with leading human rights advocates, and one of Magnitsky's original clients, Bill Browder. McFaul reiterated that the administration does not support financial sanctions on Russian human rights violators that go beyond the visa bans, and he said it's not helpful to name the names of the officials who are banned.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue of Russia's PNTR status and the Jackson-Vanik law on Thursday. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) visited Russia last month and met with several senior Russian officials on the issue, including lame duck President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Jackson-Vanik from our position is a total no brainer. There's no upside to holding onto Jackson-Vanik right now. Zero. And viewed in human rights terms, there's no upside," McFaul said. "Jackson-Vanik should be terminated because there's no advantage in terms of the debate about democracy. There's no advantage in terms of human rights."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, talked at the event about the coordinated campaign by the Russian government to clamp down on democratization and human rights progress in Russia and to blame the current anti-government protests in Russia on the United States.
"Politically, in light of the environment in Russia, which has been deteriorating in Russia, to simply lift Jackson-Vanik without some replacement would be viewed in Moscow and Russian leadership as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States -- again, that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said. "And if we don't replace it, then we would, in their minds, be rewarding them despite their bad behavior by not going after them. To me, this has to be a package deal."
At a separate event this afternoon at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, McFaul again said that the administration would not support any human rights bill in exchange for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and made the case that Jackson-Vanik only hurts U.S. businesses.
"We're not going to have an argument about the diagnostics with anybody on Capitol Hill. We're not going to claim Russia's more democratic than you think. We're not going to get into that kind of argument. We'll just agree Russia has problems with these issues. But we disagree on the prescription," he said. "We don't believe that holding on to Jackson-Vanik in any way, shape, or form, advances the cause of democracy, human rights, or rule of law in Russia... there's no causal relationship."
McFaul is pushing for a new civil society fund, which would provide about $50 million in new money support NGOs there. The White House sent the plan to Capitol Hill last October, and McFaul says it is "stuck in Congress." We're told the request for funding is being held up by the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"If you want to do something constructive, that's an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria," McFaul said. "I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don't see it that way."
McFaul also mentioned in both events the blog post published today by several Russian opposition leaders, including Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, calling for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
"At the end of the day, those who defend the argument that Jackson-Vanik's provisions should still apply to Russia in order to punish Putin's anti-democratic regime only darken Russia's political future, hamper its economic development, and frustrate its democratic aspirations," the opposition leaders wrote. "Jackson-Vanik is also a very useful tool for Mr Putin's anti-American propaganda machine: it helps him to depict the United States as hostile to Russia, using outdated cold-war tools to undermine Russia's international competitiveness."
FPI's Ellen Bork pointed out at the event that Navalny and Nemtsov both support passage of the Magnitsky act, although they didn't mention that in their blog post.
In response to a question from The Cable, McFaul declined to call the recent election of President-elect Vladimir Putin "free and fair," referring to State Department's statements on the election. He also denied accusations that the United States is financially supporting the protest movement, which he characterized as a healthy example of increasing Russian popular political participation.
"I wouldn't call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That's different from other places around the world," McFaul said. "There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that."
Leading human rights activists see the government response to the protests in a harsher light.
"In the past few years, Russia has moved backwards not forwards... The trappings of democracy exist, elections happen," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said at the FPI event. "But beyond those surface trappings, over the last few years, the Russian government has tried to weaken or dismantle every institution that might check the power of its officials or increase the power of its people."
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
If the Russians are going to continue to arm the brutal Syrian regime, then the U.S. military should rethink its $900 million contract with the official Russian government-controlled arms broker, 17 senators said in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today.
"We write to express our grave concern regarding the Department of Defense's ongoing business dealings with Rosoboronexport, the same Russian state-controlled arms export firm that continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systematic attacks on its own people," reads a bipartisan letter sent to the Pentagon today led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), and signed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Robert Casey (D-PA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Russia has supplied over $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid. The contract has an option for another $550 million in helicopters, which could bring the whole deal to over $900 million.
"Even in the face of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government during the past year, enabled no doubt by the regular flow of weapons from Russia, the United States Government has unfortunately continued to procure from Rosoboronexport," the senators wrote.
Rosoboronexport is a special case not just because it is allegedly arming the Syrian regime to this day. The firm was blacklisted from doing business with the U.S. government in 2006 for violating the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, and was removed from that blacklist in 2009.
"While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military, our specific concern at this time is that the Department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community's concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria," the letter reads.
The senators argue that the Russian helicopters, which the Afghans have more experience flying than American ones, could have been bought through other firms. The Navy did exactly that in 2009, before the Rosoboronexport contract was signed, buying four of these helicopters prior to the current Army deal in a competitively bid contract.
"Other options are very likely available as demonstrated by the fact that the first four Mi-17 helicopters that the U.S. Navy purchased for Afghanistan came through a different firm. We ask that the DoD immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means," the senators wrote.
At last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Army Secretary John McHugh, Cornyn pressed him directly on the Rosoboronexport contract. The Army, as the executive agent on the program, is in charge of the contract.
"I am aware of it. The newer development, of course, is the alleged activity of Russian arms manufacturers in Syria. And the clarity on that is not what I think most of us would like at this point," testified McHugh, the former ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
McHugh claimed that the order for these specific helicopters came from U.S. Central Command -- the branch of the military tasked with overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the Army was just executing those orders. He also claimed that buying the helicopters from Rosoboronexport was the only way to get them.
"Rosoboron, under federal law in Russia, is the only one who controls the export of those platforms, so we didn't have options there, either, as I understand it," McHugh said.
Cornyn argued that this simply isn't true, because other versions of the helicopter can be purchased elsewhere and then retooled to meet the Afghans' specific needs.
"Apparently, in 2009, the Navy was able to use an alternative acquisition route through a private broker, and so, at least back in 2009, there appeared to be an alternative source for the Mi-17 variant helicopters and related tool kits for the Afghan army," Cornyn said.
"So it strikes me that it's pretty clear that Russia has Syrian blood on its hands and complicit in that effort," he continued. "And with that predicate, you can understand why I was troubled to read and learn that Rosoboronexport's customer list also included the United States Army."
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
The Russian people and international observers may not see last Sunday's presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
"President Obama highlighted achievements in U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years with President Medvedev, including cooperation on Afghanistan, the conclusion and ratification of the START agreement, Russia's recent invitation to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and cooperation on Iran," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years."
Obama told Putin he looked forward to Putin's May visit to Camp David for the G-8 summit and the two talked about how they could benefit economically from Russia's joining the WTO, the statement explained.
That could be a reference to administration efforts to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the U.S. from giving Russia permanent normal trade status. Some in Congress are resisting that because of Russia's deteriorating record on democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
At the end of the statement, the White House mentioned the crisis in Syria, in which the Russian government is arming the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations."
The State Department, in their May 5 statement on the election, noted the concerns of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it wasn't a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used partisan purposes, and that there were procedural irregularities on the day of the election.
"We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent," the State Department said. The White House statement made no mention of the problems with the election.
After Russia's Dec. 2011 parlaimentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them "neither free nor fair." When Russian protesters took to the streets to protest those elections and Putin's return to the presidency, Putin publicly accused Clinton of inciting the protests.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is on his way back from Russia after meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in anticipation of a coming congressional debate on giving Russia Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
The visit was closely coordinated with the Obama administration, according to a Baucus aide. Baucus is anticipating a debate over granting Russia PNTR, which would also require the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, sometime this spring or summer. By then, Russia will be a full member of the World Trade Organization and U.S. businesses would be disadvantaged from doing business in Russia if the PNTR issue is not resolved, according to Baucus.
But the Baucus camp was keen to stress that the senator's focus went well beyond economic access for American companies.
"Baucus wanted to learn more and prepare himself for this year's debate to prepare himself and other members as he did last year with Colombia before the free trade debate," his aide told The Cable. "Baucus definitely stressed democracy and human rights concerns with Medvedev as he did with several other senior Russian officials on the trip. He also met at length with civil society activists -- democracy, human rights and environmental activists -- as well as another meeting with leading transparency and anti-corruption advocates."
Some GOP offices want to link the issues of human rights and corruption in Russia to the granting of PNTR status. Those offices are pushing for passage of Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, named for the anti-corruption lawyer who was allegedly tortured and died in a Russian prison exactly two years ago today.
These Republicans -- who include House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) -- want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevents Russia from getting PNTR status. The administration would prefer not to link Magnitsky to this trade status, because it would cause the Russians to take retaliatory measures against the U.S. in other areas of bilateral cooperation. Administration officials are proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead, but Republicans are cool on that idea.
The Russians staunchly oppose the Magnitsky bill. In fact, the Russian government is moving forward with the prosecution of Magnitsky on criminal tax charges, even though he is dead.
In a press release before his trip, Baucus argued that granting PNTR status for Russia could result in a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia, which now stand at about $9 billion per year. He also argued that a package of concessions Russia made to the United States before being invited to join the WTO would result in benefits for U.S. animal and agricultural industries and will result in Russia tamping down its own domestic agricultural subsidies.
"Opening doors overseas in countries like Russia will propel our economic recovery forward and create jobs across the United States," Baucus said. "Holding Russia to its promises as it enters the WTO and seeking a greater share of the Russian market is a one-way economic benefit for the United States and an absolute no-brainer."
Baucus' home state of Montana is a major beef exporter and Russia is currently the fifth largest importer of American beef. Baucus has touted Russia's agreement to reduce beef tariffs as part of its WTO accession.
On Feb. 20, in addition to Medvedev, Baucus met with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Russia's top official on economic and trade issues, and Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina. On Monday, Baucus also met with Russian Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Baucus pushed for Russia to reevaluate the positions it has taken on Syria and Iran. He asked what steps Russia is willing to take to halt the violence in Syria, given that every effort to date has failed, and discussed Russia's response to Iran's nuclear program," his office said Tuesday. There was no word about Lavrov's response to those questions.
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
The State Department had a response ready at today's press briefing in case it was asked about the trial of those responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The problem is that the Russian's aren't trying his killers -- they are trying Magnitsky himself -- even though he died over two years ago.
On Feb. 7, the New York Times reported that the Russian government is moving forward with tax evasion charges against Magnitsky, even though he died in detention in November 2009, reportedly after being abused and then refused medical attention by his captors. The title of the article was "Russia Plans to Retry Dead Lawyer in Tax Case."
Asked about the plan to try Magnistky posthumously at Thursday's press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland read from her briefing book the following comment:
"We've seen the press reports about the re-opening of the Magnitsky case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky's death to justice."
"But this is the case against him, they're going to try him," one reporter told Nuland.
"I thought it was, they were re-opening the case against some who were found guilty," Nuland said.
"No, they're going to try him," the reporter responded. "And he's dead."
We know the State Department has been following the case because it has become a major cause on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties are pushing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. 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 doesn't support quick passage of the Magnitsky bill, but last year the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case.
lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the
repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the
1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants, but now stands in the
of U.S.-Russian trade in the context of the WTO.
The administration admitted last July that Russia threatened to torpedo many areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation if the Magnitsky bill became law.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill. "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."
Responding to a request from The Cable, Nuland sent out a statement Thursday afternoon that addressed the trial of Magnitsky himself:
"Pursuing criminal charges against Sergey Magnitskiy serves no purpose other than to deflect attention away from the circumstances surrounding this tragic case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Mr. Magnitskiy’s death to justice.”
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.