Russia Worries About the Price of Oil, Not a Nuclear Iran

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The Wall Street Journal

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov calls for President Barack Obama to face the reality of Russia’s interests in continued high tensions in the Middle East, and to take a serious stance in talks with Moscow over Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia Worries About the Price of Oil, Not a Nuclear Iran
The Obama administration’s foreign-policy goodwill has yet to be repaid in kind.

October 18, 2009
Wall Street Journal

Last Wednesday in Moscow, the remaining illusions the Obama administration held for cooperation with Russia on the Iranian nuclear program were thrown in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s face. Stronger sanctions against Iran would be “counterproductive,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, just days after President Dmitry Medvedev said sanctions were likely inevitable. This apparent inconsistency should remind us that Mr. Medvedev is little more than a well-placed spectator, and that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who discounted sanctions in a statement from Beijing, is still the voice that matters.

This slap comes after repeated concessions—canceling the deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, muted criticism of Russia’s sham regional elections—from the White House. Washington’s conciliatory steps have given the Kremlin’s rulers confidence they have nothing to fear from Mr. Obama on anything that matters.

And nothing matters more to Mr. Putin and his oligarchs than the price of oil. Even with oil at $70 a barrel, Russia’s economy is in bad straits. Tension in the Middle East, even an outbreak of war, would push energy prices higher. A nuclear-armed Iran would, of course, be harmful to Russian national security, but prolonging the crisis is beneficial to the interests of the ruling elite: making money and staying in power.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy has directed a great deal of optimism and good will toward friends and foes. Such a cheery outlook is commendable as long as it does not clash with reality. Unfortunately, there were several clashes in the past week.

On Wednesday, a top Russian security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, said in an interview in Izvestia, one of the main Kremlin propaganda papers, that Russia was planning to reshape its policies on nuclear force to allow for pre-emptive strikes and use in regional conflicts. Since it cannot be a coincidence that this news leaked while Mrs. Clinton was still in Moscow, it can be considered a response to Mr. Obama’s talk of a world without nuclear weapons and rescinding the deployment of missile defenses.

Also last week, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov was cleared of wrongdoing for dispatching a squad of his paratroopers to interfere with the criminal investigation of a firm owned by his son-in-law. Transcripts of the general’s phone calls demonstrating his involvement were published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper, the last print outlet critical of the Kremlin. But this was not enough to cause trouble for this idol of the second Chechen war, where his forces were repeatedly accused by Human Rights Watch and other organizations of atrocities against civilians.

Then there was the spectacle of Russia’s regional elections. They were as fraudulent and superfluous as every election under Mr. Putin’s reign, with real opposition candidates barred and the ruling United Russia party receiving its predetermined majority. This time the fraud was too blatant even for Kremlin-allowed opposition party leaders Alexander Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov, who loudly protested results that have moved Russia to the verge of a one-party dictatorship. Mr. Medvedev asserted that the elections had gone perfectly well. Meanwhile, the U.S. statement expressed the usual concerns and quoted President Medvedev’s own words on the importance of free and fair elections—as if he would be shamed by them.

From the shameless expect no shame. And from a corrupt and criminal regime, expect no changes unless real consequences are put on the table. With Russia, this would mean going after Mr. Putin’s coterie of oligarchs and hitting them where it hurts: their privileges and their pocketbooks. If the European Union and the U.S. started canceling visas and prying into finances, they would find the Kremlin far more interested in sanctions against Iran. Mr. Putin has used human rights and democracy as bargaining chips because these things matter to the West and not to him. Until the game is played for stakes with value to the Kremlin, it’s a one-sided contest.

If the U.S. is serious about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then Mr. Obama must get to the point and state the penalties unequivocally. Repeating over and over that it is “unacceptable” has become a joke. For more than 10 years a nuclear North Korea was also “unacceptable.” If Mr. Obama says the U.S. will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, then we will see if Tehran blinks. At a minimum, the White House should publicly promise that any attack on Israel with weapons of mass destruction will be treated as an attack on American soil and urge NATO to make a similar commitment.

Like many Russians, I was encouraged by Mr. Obama’s inspirational speech in Moscow last July, but he must know there is more to statesmanship than printing money and making speeches. Inflated rhetoric, like inflated currency, can lead to disaster. The goodwill bubble Mr. Obama is creating will burst unless there are real results soon.

Mr. Kasparov, leader of The Other Russia coalition, is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal.