Not quite a foe, U.S. looms large in Russian world view


Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a Western military strike on Iran would be a "catastrophe" that would aggravate dangerous divisions already present in the Muslim world. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
January 18, 2012

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pushed back against U.S. policy on a wide range of topics Wednesday, from Syria to Iran to child adoption, his remarks coming on the heels of a program on state-run television attacking the new American ambassador, Michael McFaul.

The five-minute segment on McFaul concentrated on his role with the National Democratic Institute promoting democracy in Russia in the 1990s. It overlooked his work of the past three years, when he was coordinating the Obama administration’s policy on Russia for the National Security Council and largely responsible for the “reset” in relations.

A Channel One analyst, Mikhail Leontiev, described him as “not an expert” on Russia.

As Russia’s presidential election approaches, the criticisms by Lavrov and the TV program were in a sense elaborations on remarks made earlier by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Russia has to assume its proper role in shaping world affairs. That almost inevitably means sparring with the United States.

But after a year of popular uprisings in the Arab world, which Russia has taken a dim view of, Moscow has become especially sensitive to American support for civil society, an unfettered Internet and what Putin calls “exporting democracy.” Some Russian officials have suggested that the United States helped to sponsor December protests in Russia.

The TV program, broadcast on Tuesday night, linked McFaul to what it sarcastically referred to as “revolution” in Russia. That day, he had met with a group of opposition figures, including Yevgenia Chirikova, who led the effort to try to save the Khimki Forest outside Moscow from road construction and has become a leader of the political protests here.

On his blog, McFaul said it was important for him to meet with the opposition as well as government leaders. “It’s a policy we call dual-track engagement,” he said. “We learned a lot from listening to these leaders.”

At Wednesday’s news conference, devoted to a review of Russian foreign policy, Lavrov kept returning to the role of the United States and the ways in which Russia takes issue with American policies and intentions.

Neither as belligerent nor as caustic as the TV program on McFaul, Lavrov laid out Russian objections to the American approach on Middle Eastern democracy, missile defense, trade restrictions and adoption. Nothing that he said indicated an abrupt departure from past Russian pronouncements, but the news conference was an occasion to put all of Moscow’s grievances together. He saved some of his strongest comments for discussing Syria.

Russia, he said, opposes the use of force against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and will use its veto to prevent the United Nations from supporting armed intervention.

“If some intend to use force at all cost . . . we can hardly prevent that from happening,” he said. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council.”

Lavrov brushed aside a question about criticism by Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of the recent sailing of a Russian freighter to Syria, reportedly to deliver ammunition. Russia, he said, doesn’t have to justify its legal business dealings. He said Russia will not join in proposed sanctions against Syria.

Russia was — and is — critical of Western intervention in Libya and does not want to see a reprise in Syria, which is an important arms customer. On Tuesday, Lavrov dismissed the idea that the United States had taken a back seat on Libya, letting the French and British take the lead. “The U.S. was not on the margins,” he said. “They had the situation under control.”

On Iran, too, Russia opposes tightening sanctions — involving oil and banking transactions — that Western nations have been instituting following the U.S. example. Such sanctions, which Lavrov called “lopsided, unilateral Western additions,” would have little effect on nuclear proliferation and seem aimed at weakening the Iranian government, he said. He called that an unacceptable goal.

If a war is launched against Iran, Lavrov warned, “the consequences will be dire.” It would, he said, set off a “chain reaction — and no knowing how it will end.”

As he did in November, Lavrov warned the United States that if it does not take into account Russian objections to its missile-
defense plan, Russia will be forced to take steps to ensure its national security. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that such steps could include the targeting of missile-defense installations and Russian withdrawal from the New START arms-control treaty.

Provoked by several cases of the abuse and death of adopted Russian children in the United States, Lavrov said Moscow might once more introduce a freeze on adoptions by Americans until Washington can provide guarantees that the children will be protected.

He also said that because of the Jackson-Vanik amendment — a Cold War leftover that ties trade status to the free emigration of Soviet Jews, Catholics and others — Russia may choose not to abide by its World Trade Organization agreements in its dealings with the United States. This could affect U.S. chicken exporters, who have been targeted by protectionist measures. Lavrov did note that the amendment has no actual bearing on trade because its provisions are suspended every year.

That the law still exists is a source of annoyance to the Russians, and a handy stick with which they can take swings at U.S. policy when they feel the need.

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