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Russia Has the Leverage?

In this front-page New York Timesnews analysis,” correspondent Peter Baker suggests that the U.S. needs Russia a lot more than Russia needs us. As one of his sources puts it, “Russia has all the leverage.” The implicit message: There isn’t much we can or should do to Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Georgia.

In point of fact, the story, if read carefully, offers plenty of evidence for the opposite conclusion: that we don’t have much to lose by getting tough with Russia because it’s already obstructing our goals at every turn.

Here is how Baker lays out the potential options for Russia to hurt us:

In addition to escalated arms sales to other anti-American states like Iran and Venezuela, policy makers and specialists in Washington envision a freeze on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation cooperation, manipulation of oil and natural gas supplies, pressure against United States military bases in Central Asia and the collapse of efforts to extend cold war-era arms control treaties.

Actually Russia has already done all of that and more, as Baker admits later on in the article:

Israeli and Western governments have already been alarmed about reports that the first elements of the Russian-built S-300 antiaircraft missile system are now being delivered to Iran, which could use them to shoot down any American or Israeli planes that seek to bomb nuclear facilities should that ever be attempted….The two sides (Russia and the U.S.) have already effectively suspended any military cooperation programs….. Just last month, Russia vetoed sanctions against Zimbabwe’s government, a move seen as a slap at Washington…It already has suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty to protest American missile defense plans and threatened to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

Of course Russia can ratchet up the pressure even more—for instance by selling Syria, which already receives Russian arms, even more sophisticated missile systems, as Baker notes. But we are not without leverage as well, notably in frustrating the desire of the Putin gang to be given legitimacy on the international stage and the chance to stash their loot in Western bank accounts. More importantly, we can frustrate Russia’s imperial designs by helping to arm its fretful neighbors.

We should not refrain from such steps because we fear Russian retaliation. It seems a given that the current rulers in the Kremlin will do whatever they can to annoy and frustrate us. If we let them get away without paying any penalty for their aggression in Georgia, as we are now doing, they will only be emboldened toward greater aggression in the future.