Russian-American Dialogue: Cooperation or Blackmail?

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Analysis & Opinion, Op-ed, Politics

The United States must improve relations with Russia, since without Russia’s participation, a host of international problems cannot be resolved, first and foremost are the nuclear threat from North Korea and the threat of international terrorist. This basic thesis is the essence of the remarks made by the Russian Federation’s Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, in his recent presentations in Northern California.

Russia’s new US Ambassador made two public appearances, the first on November 29, at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, and the second on December 1, at Stanford University’s Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The Russian representative’s speech at both events was fairly predictable. He stated there was not a shred of evidence of Russian interference in the US elections and no proof has ever been presented. In fact, he repeated standard Kremlin rhetoric that the entire notion of “the Russian threat” is just “fake news”–a creation of the American media, resulting from domestic political party divisions in the United States. The wealth of evidence presented by unanimous U.S. intelligence agency assessments and reports as well as evidentiary analyses made by private industry leaders, the Russian Ambassador tactfully ignored. Therefore, argued Antonov, Americans should put aside past disagreements and return to “pragmatic cooperation” with Russia. Not coincidentally, such a return directly corresponds to Russian interests.

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“Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s second largest nuclear power. We are ready to offer our assistance in negotiations with the DPRK, as we too are concerned about the growing nuclear potential of North Korea. Likewise we can help the United States in its fight against ISIS (Islamic State), and in regulating Iran’s nuclear program,” Antonov said. Perhaps the Russian Ambassador’s most touching plea was his proposal for cooperation in the fields of intelligence and cybersecurity.

The Russian viewpoint is that in order to restore the severely deteriorated relationship with Russia in recent years, the United States must be the one to make the first move. The first step would be to allow Russian diplomats to return to the former Russian Consulate General offices in San Francisco, shuttered last year together with the expulsion of Russian diplomats by the Obama administration as punishment for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

“This is our diplomatic property, and I still cannot get an answer as to what possible threat it poses to the U.S. if I am allowed to simply come check the safety of our property. The items there, the chairs, the lamps, they are ours, after all,” the Ambassador lamented.

Antonov also stressed that he does not believe that Russia’s actions in any way prompted the creation of the current state of tattered relations. Moreover, Antonov stated that if Moscow did anything wrong, it would in not having taken “much tougher actions” years earlier. In fact, he went on, Russia’s only mistake was being “too flexible and compliant” in its foreign policy with the West. Given that Russia has annexed Crimea, started a war with Ukraine, and interfered in the U.S. election (and in European elections), one can suppose that a “tougher stand” by Russia against this backdrop is a not-too-veiled reference to nuclear war.

Some Russian political scientists see such statements as nothing more engaging in low form of blackmail. Andrei Piontkovsky has directly stated that Moscow uses its influence on Islamic terrorists to direct them to fight the U.S., precisely so Russia can come back later to propose that cooperation with Russia is essential to achieve security in the battle against Islamic terrorism.

“You must first and foremost cooperate with the Kremlin, otherwise they will continue to blow you up.” That was the narrative developed by Putin’s propaganda and his foreign agents after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack by the Tsarnaev brothers. Any American prosecutor, journalist or politician who wanted to understand the truth about the Tsarnaevs’ terrorist attack, can be assured that “the Boston fuse had been ignited a long time ago” (Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2013). Before carrying out his act of terrorism, the elder Tsarnaev spent eight months of 2012 in Russia, under the strict control of the FSB. He did not sneak out of Russia to America through some hidden backchannels, but he flew openly through Sheremetyevo airport….Tsarnaev would never have dared to carry out such an act if he had not been absolutely sure that he would be completely safe in Russia, that he was going to friends and curators,” Piontkovsky states.

Relevant for today’s discussion, Piontkovsky ironically notes at the end of his analysis that now the U.S. can ask the Kremlin “for help in solving another security problem for the United States – the rapidly growing nuclear missile potential of the DPRK of Russian origin.” Judging by the Russian Ambassador’s speech, there has been no such request. Therefore Anatoly Antonov himself had to propose this new “offer too good to refuse” from Moscow, that is, attempting to “sell” its influence on the North Korean leadership to Washington. It was notable that Ambassador Antonov emphasized Russia as a formidable nuclear power that can help in negotiations with Pyongyang more often during his speech than all his other arguments.

The Russian Ambassador’s speech at Stanford University was, for all intents and purposes, a repetition of his previous speech at the World Affairs Council, the only difference being that in the university setting, Russia’s representative had to face a skeptical audience with more challenging questions. For example, he was asked about the fate of political prisoners in Russia; specifically, that of imprisoned Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov.

“If you have read the Minsk Agreement, then you should know that Russia is not a party to the conflict. Putin cannot simply pick up the phone and command the leadership of DNR and LNR to begin exchanging prisoners,” said Antonov, adding that nonetheless, he expects that “all prisoners to be released before Christmas.”

“What additional international sanctions could finally persuade Russia to stop supporting terrorists in the Donbas?” asked Dmitry Romanovich, fellow at Stanford’s Emerging Ukrainian Leaders Program, and adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

Antonov answered: “From our common history, you must remember how during the Second World War all the peoples of the U.S.S.R. joined together against fascism. Based on this experience, you must understand that this problem cannot be solved by sanctions alone … For our part, we are doing everything we can so that our people feel protected on the territory of Ukraine. We cannot allow a repeat of what happened in Odesa, where people were burned [alive].”

Dmitry later summed up his reaction to Ambassador Antonov’s answer to his question: “Notice he didn’t even deny that Donbas terrorists are being supported by Russia, directly stating that they are doing this for the intent of “protecting the Russian-speaking population.” He did not even object to my using the word “terrorists.” This is incredible honesty! Moreover, the Russian Ambassador for some reason linked the release of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov to political prisoners contemplated in the exchange of prisoners provisions in the Minsk Agreement framework. This indicates either complete ignorance of the issue or the direct influence of Russia on the leadership of the occupied territories in Donbas. In short, both of his answers confirm Russia’s participation in the war in the Donbas.”

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For his part, Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, who helped bring the new Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to Stanford University, stressed that despite deep disagreements with Russia, it remains very important in difficult circumstances to maintain and even increase contacts and interactions both at the government level and at the level of civil society.

“It’s a big mistake not to have contacts. Let me be clear. It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree. You only know where your real disagreements are if you interact with your counterparts. And right now there is not enough interaction between our governments, between our military, between our NGOs, and between our political leaders, including the Congress. We have some serious disagreements, let’s be clear about that. It’s not just in my opinion a normal national interest. Annexation is a policy that is illegal, that we thought was ended at the end of World War II. And so, I personally have a radical disagreement with that. In the same way, Russia and entities connected to the Russian government violated the sovereignty of the United States in our 2016 presidential election. This is a FACT. That’s not something to be debated. If we can’t agree on that fact, no amount of engagement will get us around that.” Professor McFaul said in an interview with our correspondent.

Translated by: Paula Chertok

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