The Myth of a U.S.-Russia Strategic Partnership - Are Russians still supposed to act grateful that we no longer live under Brezhnev or Stalin?
By Garry Kasparov - Moscow
After four years of Dmitry Medvedev keeping the czar's throne warm, Vladimir Putin is once again Russia's president. There were no public celebrations to accompany Mr. Putin's inauguration on May 7. Quite the opposite. Moscow's streets had been cleared by a huge security presence; the city turned into a ghost town. This scene came the day after massive protests showed that the Russian middle class rejects Mr. Putin's bid to become their president for life. With no independent legislature or judiciary at our disposal, Mr. Putin's impeachment will have to take place in the streets.
Meanwhile, this modern czar is using the full power of the state to stamp out Russia's growing democracy movement. Two young movement leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested on May 6 and are still in jail on 15-day sentences. They've been charged with "violently resisting arrest," even though several videos of the arrest show Mr. Navalny with his hands in the air shouting, "Don't resist! Don't resist!"
Naturally, the court has forbidden the admission of any video evidence in the case. It is possible that a criminal case will be added against them for "inciting mass violence"—Kremlin code for a political trial.
A similar case in St. Petersburg has even grimmer overtones of KGB repression. Activists of the Other Russia coalition were recently charged with "extremist activity" based on the testimony of agents and informants all in the employ of the Interior Ministry. Their crime is officially described as organizing "public events focused on inciting hatred toward high leaders of state authority"—just the sort of phrase that sends chills down the spine of anyone born behind the Iron Curtain.
The American reaction to the protests and the Putin regime's vicious response to them was not long in coming. On May 8, with security forces still clearing the streets and raiding cafes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview with CNN that made the Obama administration's position frightfully clear. In a phrase that quickly became infamous here, Mrs. Clinton said she hoped "Russia will be able to continue democratizing" during Mr. Putin's new term.
The 12 years of Putin rule have marked a steady slide away from democracy in every way, so what message was this outrageous statement intended to convey? Are Russians still supposed to act grateful that we no longer live under Brezhnev or Stalin? Or is this the Obama administration's way of telling Mr. Putin to carry on, that matters of human rights and democracy are safely off the table as long as NATO can use Russian territory for Afghanistan supply lines?
The myth that Russia and the U.S. have a mutually useful strategic partnership has been promoted by the Americans for years, but the fiction is becoming harder to maintain. Mr. Putin abruptly canceled his trip to the G-8 summit at Camp David and will instead make the first foreign excursion of his new term to the unalloyed dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus.
Perhaps Mr. Putin should continue and make a tour of all of his dictator brethren, to whom he provides both direct and indirect support. The Kremlin is desperate to keep Syria's Bashar al-Assad in place and continues to sell him "defensive weapons"—since any conflict in the region sustains the high oil prices Mr. Putin and his cronies need to maintain power.
Aiding Iranian strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear quest serves the same purpose. Mr. Putin is more than happy to provide Iran's mullahs with arms, and when he agrees not to sell them advanced antiaircraft missiles it is only because he does not want to entirely dissuade Israel from a military strike against Iran, his dream scenario being open conflict in the region and ever-higher oil prices.
Other Putin-friendly dictators hold the line along the soft Central Asian underbelly of Russia where radical Islam is an ever-growing threat and where Russian generals manage the drug trade. Further afield, the U.S. government has accused members of Hugo Chávez's government in Venezuela of aiding and abetting Mexico's drug cartels, and there is no doubt Mr. Chávez's close relationship with Kremlin fixer Igor Sechin comes in handy there.
If all this sounds to the Obama administration like a Russian partnership with America, perhaps my understanding of strategy is not what it once was. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin joined forces because they faced a shared existential threat. Mr. Putin's clandestine agenda serves only his own purposes.
Opposing Mr. Putin's activities is also a matter of upholding international law. The epic proportions of public-private corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia spilled over our borders long ago.
So what can be done to aid the cause of Russian democracy in the face of obstruction by the Obama administration? The U.S. Congress should, at the earliest possible date, pass the 2011 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act to hold Mr. Putin's thugs and bureaucrats accountable. Named for a Russian attorney who died in police custody in 2009 while investigating official corruption, the Magnitsky Act would bring visa and asset sanctions against Russian government functionaries culpable of criminal and human rights abuses.
Unlike the charade of cooperation between the Kremlin and the White House, passing this law will be something truly in the best interests of both the American and the Russian people.Mr. Kasparov is the leader of the Russian pro-democracy group the United Civil Front and chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. He resides in Moscow.