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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Sunday Condemnation (See, We Told you So)

It's gratifying to see the word getting out far and wide on Russia, and gratifying as well to see points we began making more than a year ago make their way more an more into the mainstream press. An editorial from the October 19th edition of the Washington Times is just one of many current examples:

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit to Moscow is just the latest sign that, more than 16 years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, Moscow is gravitating towards Cold War behavior.

The old Soviet obsession — fighting American "imperialism" — remains undiluted. "Keeping the relationship with Washington on the verge of a crisis and inventing an imaginary 'American enemy' is creating much-needed legitimacy for the current Russsian leadership, which now has only Mr. Putin's personal popularity as its political base," observes Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen. "The image of Russia surrounded by enemies is absolutely necessary for today's Russian ruling class of senior secret police officers, as it positions them in the eyes of the people as the saviors and defenders of Mother Russia."

Indeed, at virtually every turn, Mr. Putin and the Russian leadership appear to be doing their best in ways large and small to marginalize and embarrass the United States and undercut U.S. foreign policy interests. Last week, for example, Mr. Putin, joined by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, held talks in Moscow with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The discussions, known as the "2 + 2 talks," were agreed to at a recent meeting in Kennebunkport, Maine between Mr. Putin and President Bush. To say that the Moscow talks held on Friday and Saturday went poorly would be an understatement. First, Mr. Putin deliberately forced Miss Rice and Mr. Gates to cool their heels for 40 minutes before meeting them. Then, in front of the television cameras, Mr. Putin attacked the deployment of the American component of a global ballistic missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland.

And that's just the beginning. The Russian strongman has threatened to retarget Russia's missiles at Europe if missile defenses are deployed there. Mr. Putin has also threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan (the INF treaty eliminated Soviet-era SS-20 missiles and U.S. Pershing II missiles deployed in Europe.) And he has also threatened to pull out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty limiting force levels between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.

But Mr. Putin's hostile approach has been especially pronounced when it comes to Iran and the larger Middle East, where he has repeatedly worked to undercut U.S. policy. Along with China, Russia continues to run interference in the U.N. Security Council for Iran's efforts to conceal its nuclear weapons programs while avoiding U.N. sanctions. Although Moscow has supported earlier sanctions against Iran (after lobbying to water sanctions down), Mr. Putin invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to the Russian capital in an effort to undercut U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran in response to its nuclear weapons program and its role as a state sponsor of terrorism. On Tuesday, speaking at a conference in Tehran involving nations that border the Caspian Sea, the Russian leader warned the United States against a military strike against Iran's illicit nuclear facilities, And along with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Mr. Putin backed the right of Iran to develop so-called peaceful nuclear energy — in essence, adopting Tehran's false assertions that it isn't attempting to obtain nuclear weapons.

And Moscow's willingness to run interference for Iran is just part of the troubling course Mr. Putin has been following. Moscow provided Strelets air-defense missile systems to Syria in 2005, possibly after a lobbying campaign by Tehran on Damascus's behalf. Last summer, Israeli forces in Lebanon found evidence that Russian-made Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank systems had been provided to Hezbollah. In one Lebanese village, Israeli officials found markings on hardware near a Hezbollah outpost showing that the Kornets had been shipped from Russia to Syria. Mr. Putin has on at least two occasions in the past 18 months played host to Hamas boss Khaled Meshal, and he has said the Russia does not view Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. And the Russian president has also indicated a willingness to consider a proposal by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to create an OPEC-style cartel for natural gas.

It is true that in a few cases, Mr. Putin has refrained from selling weapons like the S-300, a highly sophisticated air-defense system, to Syria. And he has clashed with Iran over the supply of uranium to its nuclear reactor at Bushehr, apparently because Tehran has failed to pay its bills on time.

But for the most part, Mr. Putin is working to damage U.S. interests, and his "anti-imperialist" policies are reminiscent of Soviet-era behavior.

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