Politics & Policy

VPOTUS in Vilnius

Does Cheney know Putin's real heart?

Vice President Dick Cheney is not known for acting on rash or sudden impulses. So his remarks about Russia delivered last week in Vilnius, which some sources assert were carefully prepared and followed a number of private consultations with various Russia experts, cannot be dismissed as “off the cuff” statements.

Perhaps the vice president is privy to intelligence information not freely available to the rest of us–that he has received unimpeachable information that the Kremlin, for instance, is completely unprepared to support any sort of coercive measures against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, or has decided to exclude American companies from taking part in the development of the Shtokman gas field–one of the largest greenfield energy projects in Russia–or will instruct Aeroflot to purchase new aircraft from Airbus instead of Boeing. Maybe he is in full agreement with Russian political analyst and Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky (who said after Cheney’s speech that it “effectively eliminates the vestiges of strategic partnership between Russia and the United States”) and chose Vilnius as the venue to openly state that it is time to put to rest the idea that the two countries can find common ground on key international issues.

Otherwise, the speech made no political sense.

The two most pressing foreign-policy priorities of the U.S. government are preventing the Iranian mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons and stopping the spiraling costs of energy. If you believe that the current Russian government is in a position to assist us in achieving those goals, then why escalate tensions now? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the vice president’s remarks, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comments in Greece and Turkey (interpreted as a warning against facilitating the expansion of Russia’s energy infrastructure)–have strengthened the arguments of those within the Russian government who argue against any sort of accommodation of Washington’s preferences. Indeed, they contrast Cheney’s warnings about Russian “energy blackmail” with the comments of Michael Glos, Angela Merkel’s economy minister, who said after the Russo-German summit in Tomsk two weeks ago, that “Russia has asserted its reputation as a reliable partner and energy supplier.”

And a second point that no one seems to want to answer: Even if the Putin administration were to promote greater political pluralism and democratic responsiveness on the part of the government, how would that benefit U.S. foreign-policy interests, given the rising anti-American sentiment among the Russian populace, most notably among the younger, post-Soviet generation? There is absolutely no linkage that I can find that a more open Russia would be more amenable to supporting the United States in its foreign policy.

I fervently hope, however, that this speech was not an exercise in empty rhetoric, designed to win the Bush administration some credibility among the vocal critics of its Russia policy on Capitol Hill such as Senator John McCain and within the Washington think-tank community and to provide the president some political cover before he attends the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July.

If one believes that a resurgent Russia, the growing authoritarian trend of the Putin administration, and Russia’s expanding energy leverage pose a threat to the ability of the United States to secure its vital interests–and that, as a result, Moscow needs to be contained by a network of pro-American states on its periphery–then we have to be prepared to pay the costs. Two years ago, I wrote: “All indications are that the United States and its Western partners are unwilling to spend the vast amounts of funds and energy that would be needed to transform policy wishes into on-the-ground realities … While some advocate vigorous and bottomless American support for romantic visions of Black-to-Baltic Sea Commonwealths or Silk Road associations, the plain truth is that the costs are simply too great to bear.”

Since that time, we’ve seen a good deal of rhetoric–but little to back it up.

The silver lining of the vice president’s speech is that it may now actually provoke a long-overdue real discussion about U.S. foreign-policy priorities and where Russia fits in, taking us away from “having our cake and eat it too” scenarios in favor of assessing whether the costs of partnership with Moscow are worth the benefits.

–Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and writes The Washington Realist.

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