The Big Chill

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The single most important national security imperative for the United States is to maintain correct relations with Russia.  It’s not al-Qaida, NSA, China, North Korea, or any other issue.

That’s why President Barack Obama’s insulting cancellation of his planned meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, during the 5-6 September Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg is so dismaying.

Russia has over 3,000 active nuclear warheads, the majority aimed  at North America.  The US has a similarly powerful nuclear arsenal,   primarily targeted on Russia, or in reserve for a second strike in the event of all-out war.

When two men are holding loaded pistols to each other’s heads, keeping cool, calm and polite is imperative.  But that’s just what Washington has not been doing, exposing Americans to an unnecessary national security risk for no apparent gain.

Informal meetings between heads of state on the sidelines of major international meetings are common and useful.  Such sit-downs serve to smooth over ongoing disputes and send a message of orderly, civilized relations.   The tone is often more important than the content.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have been growing steadily chillier over recent years.  Gone are the days when the credulous George Bush could say he looked into Vlad Putin’s eyes and trusted him.  A series of disputes – Syria, Palestine, arms control, missile defense – bedevil US-Russian relations.  Washington has been blasting Moscow over human rights, which is pretty rich coming after Guantanamo, waterboarding,  and massive US spying on the whole world, including Americans.

Behind this Big Chill is Washington’s ongoing treatment of Russia as a second or third-rate power.  The US lectures and hectors Russia and affords scant concern of Moscow’s strategic interests or spheres of interest.  Europe gets much the same treatment.  Whenever Russia refuses to go along with US policy – Syria being a good example – it comes in for barrages of criticism over human and political rights in America’s state-influenced media and Congress.

President Putin is no angel:  he’s tough as nails and brooks no opposition.  But that’s what Russians want.  Putin has raised Russia off its knees.

In 1989, I was the first western journalist admitted into KGB’s Moscow  headquarters, the Lubyanka.  I was told by senior KGB generals that they were ditching the rotten, corrupt Communist Party. What Russia needed, they said,  was a tough, iron-fisted leader like the strongmen then running Chile and South Korea.  Shortly after, KGB mounted a palace coup in the Kremlin and installed one of its star officers, Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, then president.

Now, President Obama has made clear he is boycotting his planned meeting with Putin because of human rights issues and Syria.  The 800-lb gorilla he did not mention is Edward Snowden, now in temporary Russian exile.   Given that Washington is in bed with numerous rights violators – think of Uzbekistan, Mubarak’s Egypt, Azerbaijan – its squeamishness over Russia rings hollow.

As for Syria, it’s Washington that is violating international law by fomenting the uprising against the Assad regime in Damascus; Russia is well within its legal rights to support Assad and arm him.   More important, Syria is close to southern Russia and a long-time Soviet/Russian ally.  Imagine the US response if Russia sought to overthrow Mexico’s government using Cuban advisors and local insurgents.

Imagine if the US increased its arms supplies to Syria’s rebels and imposed a no-fly zone, as Sen. John McCain urges.  Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles down US warplanes.  The US launches attacks on Russian AA units, then on Russian ships delivering arms to the Assad government.   It’s not hard to see how a direct clash over Syria could put Russia and the US on their most perilous collision course since the Cuban missile crisis.

Instead of dealing with this major threat, Obama, under blistering attack from Republicans over the deaths of three Americans in Benghazi, Libya, is offending Putin and indeed all Russians.  This is foolish, short-sighted and sure to worsen US-Russian relations as well as scuttling chances of an arms control pact in the next few years.

Or, in simple English:  President Obama, don’t kick sand in the face of a man holding a gun to your head.  How about some presidential behavior re Russia?

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