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Published: Sunday, 4/22/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Washington must keep pressure on the Kremlin

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST

Russia has become a U.S. presidential election issue, with some American politicians exaggerating the challenge the country presents to the world's leading power and others playing it down.

Those seriously pondering the U.S. policy toward Russia may consider a human-rights bill that, if passed, would impose sanctions on corrupt Russian officials implicated in the prison death of a Russian lawyer. The bill also would target any other known corrupt bureaucrats, be it in Russia or any foreign country.

Neither a friend nor a foe, Russia has so far responded fairly well to the carrot-and-stick treatment. But the old carrot -- a long-coveted accession to the World Trade Organization -- is already being fed to Russia. And the old whip -- the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that denies Russia the most favored nation trade status -- became outdated with the downfall of the Soviet Union and is bound to be repealed soon so that U.S. companies trading with Russia aren't at a disadvantage.

The human-rights bill -- the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- would freeze U.S. bank accounts and deny American visas to corrupt officials and human-rights violators anywhere in the world, Russia included.

Such a whip is bound to be effective. After all, it is not Russia's proteges such as Iran, North Korea, or Syria where Russian bureaucrats like to keep their money, educate their children, or buy real estate but the United Kingdom and the United States.

So far, the Kremlin has enjoyed a free hand in controlling Russia's judiciary, ruining the media, subjugating the parliament, jailing its political opponents, and turning a blind eye on assassinations of its critics, if not more.

A lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest foreign investor in Russia, Mr. Magnitsky died in police custody on false charges of tax avoidance after he was arrested for alleging a $230 million state-orchestrated fraud.

To be sure, Russia is not our "number one geopolitical foe," whatever Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate, may be telling you. But Russia is far from being a friend, and it is capable of affecting our well-being.

Consider that Russia:

Is the world's largest producer of crude oil.

Is on par with the United States in nuclear weapons.

Tolerates an autocratic regime that masks itself as a democracy.

Has widespread prejudice against the United States.

The view that the United States enjoys more than a fair share of the world's riches is carefully cultivated by the Russia's thieving leadership that needs a scapegoat.

Besides, Russia has a half-trillion-dollar cash reserve that would give it flexibility in case the Kremlin resorts to its old practice of temporarily cutting or threatening to cut natural gas supplies to countries in Eastern Europe in order to maximize profit and for political ends.

Moreover, Russia -- which as the world's largest crude producer has leverage with Iran -- has all but turned a blind eye on Tehran's efforts to build nuclear weapons that finally necessitated international oil sanctions, namely the embargo on Iranian oil exports to the European Union. The embargo suits Russia just fine, boosting its crude imports to Europe while contributing to the rise in oil prices.

Finally, the Kremlin is also capable of manipulating oil production to further inflate oil prices, imperiling the economic recovery in the United States. This, in turn, could prevent the incumbent president from getting re-elected.

The United States needs a new stick badly to keep the Kremlin in check.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com or 419-724-60789.



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