Obama's Russia policy may come under fire

The Obama administration's Russia policy is likely to come under pressure from the new Republican-controlled Congress, especially with hawkish senators set to assume leading positions.

The Senate enjoys specific constitutional powers over foreign and security matters, and now that the Republicans have gained control of it following Congressional polls this week, President Barack Obama's policies in these areas can be expected to come under closer scrutiny and sharper criticism.

Broadsides are likely to be levelled against his administration's management of the many crises in the Middle East, and especially over the question of a potential deal over Iran's nuclear programme. But it is over US relations with Russia that Congress is expected to have the greatest immediate impact.

At first sight, this seems odd as Mr Obama has already imposed sanctions on Moscow in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's military intervention in Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea.

Nevertheless, Russia remains fertile ground for US Congressional involvement, partly because the Cold War image of Russians as a hostile nation endures, but also because the US has no great economic stake in Russia. So, while advocating a more muscular US policy in the Middle East or in China remains controversial as it requires putting the lives of American soldiers or US jobs at risk, being tough on Russia is both cheap and uncontroversial with US voters.

The impetus for the new Republican majority will come from the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, where Mr John McCain could take the chairmanship. The Arizona Republican, who has been among Mr Obama's biggest antagonists since the President defeated him in the 2008 elections, has authored the Russia Aggression Prevention Act in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Another sponsor of this legislation is Mr Mitch McConnell, who is about to become the Senate's majority leader. The biggest hitters in the new Congress have, therefore, already lined up against Russia.

When Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko addressed US legislators in September, his plea for help resulted in a relatively paltry offer of US$53 million (S$69 million) worth of humanitarian aid, all of it in the form of "non-lethal security assistance".

But Republican senators are likely to demand that future US aid include military training for Ukraine's armed forces, and weapon supplies from US military warehouses in Europe.

Senators McCain and McConnell also support a further enlargement of Nato, the US-led military alliance in Europe.

While the possibility of Ukraine joining Nato is ruled out, since it will be opposed by many Nato member-states, the US Senate may insist that the Obama administration offer Ukraine, as well as former Soviet republics Moldova and Georgia, a "major non-Nato allied status", as Senator McCain has suggested recently.

Mr Putin is guaranteed to take grave offence, and has already threatened to retaliate with unspecified measures of his own, all of which are likely to heighten tensions.

However, it is over the complicated agenda of arms control - and especially of nuclear weapons - that Congress is likely to interfere most.

The disarmament achievement that Mr Obama touts most is the conclusion of a treaty with Russia, calling on the two nations to reduce to 1,550 the number of nuclear warheads deployed on certain delivery systems.

"The Russians have been good partners" in the application of the treaty, says Ms Rose Gottemoeller, the US Under-Secretary of State for arms control.

But most Republican Congressmen believe Ms Gottemoeller and the administration are reluctant to reveal information that Russia is "cheating" by developing other categories of weapons, and are demanding that Mr Obama declare the Russians in violation of various disarmament treaty obligations.

The White House is likely to resist such pressures. Nevertheless, it is clear that the nuclear disarmament agenda, which Mr Obama made the centrepiece of his presidency and was one of the reasons cited for his Nobel Prize award, is now effectively dead.

Mr Strobe Talbott, a distinguished Russia expert who currently heads the Brookings Institution, one of America's leading think-tanks, is counselling against any hasty moves against Russia.

He called instead on senators to "close ranks on the proposition that the West, led by the United States, embraces a sustainable policy" on Russia, a broader and less specific agenda.

Still, the temptation to bait the Russians may become irresistible for the Republican majority.


This article was first published on November 7, 2014.
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