The Cable

Biden invites Putin to Washington

Vice President Joseph Biden invited Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to visit Washington during a phone call between the two leaders on April 21. A White House official confirmed to The Cable that "the vice president said he would welcome seeing Prime Minister Putin in the U.S." The Russian press reported that Biden said President ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Joseph Biden invited Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to visit Washington during a phone call between the two leaders on April 21.

A White House official confirmed to The Cable that "the vice president said he would welcome seeing Prime Minister Putin in the U.S." The Russian press reported that Biden said President Barack Obama is also interested in seeing Putin if he visits. Biden saw Putin during his visit to Moscow last month.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin neither accepted nor rejected the offer due to "complex scheduling issues." The visit would be the first by Putin to the United States since Obama took office. The White House didn’t provide any other details — such as whether Biden would take Putin to Ray’s Hell-Burger, where Obama took President Dmitry Medvedev for lunch last year.

Last year, during the debate over New START, Biden suggested that the U.S.-Russia reset was being pushed by Medvedev and that Putin was less enthusiastic about mending U.S.-Russia relations.

"Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there [in terms of committing to the reset], but maybe," Biden said. 

For Putin’s critics, who believe that the prime minister is an autocrat and is vastly overstepping his position in preparation for a return to the presidency in 2012, an official visit to Washington and meetings with Obama and Biden would send the wrong message.

"It’s very puzzling that Mr. Putin is being invited to Washington, because in Russia the prime minister does not have any foreign policy role whatsoever," said Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a member of the federal political council of the Russian opposition party Solidarity.

"It’s the wrong signal, especially given the speculation that Mr. Putin wants to run in next year’s election. It could be misinterpreted as support for Putin’s plans," he said. "Everybody understands that Putin is the puppet master behind the puppet Medvedev, but I don’t think that Washington should be playing Putin’s games."

If and when Putin comes to town, the top issues will be Russian accession to the World Trade Organization, Russia’s drive for visa waiver status, and the Obama administration’s desire to pursue missile defense cooperation with Russia. Only one of those agenda items, WTO accession, seems even remotely likely. However, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a U.S. law meant to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish emigrants in the 1970s, stands in the way.

An official read out of the April 21 Biden-Putin phone call stated that the two leaders discussed "the Obama Administration’s commitment to terminate Jackson-Vanik’s application to Russia."

But the administration needs Congress to actually change the law, and  it will be a tough slog to convince Russia skeptics that the deal is a net gain for U.S. interests. Russia hawks on Capitol Hill may also oppose the repeal of Jackson-Vanick due to their view that there has been a negative trend in Russia regarding democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Last week, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced The Magnitsky Act, which "imposes visa and economic sanctions on Russian state officials who are responsible for human rights abuses, torture and the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009." Congressional Republicans are preparing their own version of legislation to impose sanctions on specific Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

Meanwhile, allies of the Russian Federation are looking for ways around Congress to repeal Jackson-Vanik. Last week, President of the American University in Moscow Edward Lozansky filed a lawsuit against Obama in U.S. District Court attempting to force the administration to repeal Jackson-Vanik without Congressional action. The complaint can be found here (PDF).

"Lozansky’s business interests are directly affected by the trade relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation," the lawsuit states. "The continued treatment of the Russian Federation as being subject to Jackson-Vanik stifles trade between the United States and the Russian Federation."

Unfortunately for Russia and Lozansky, a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service stated that granting Russia "Normal Trade Relations" status, which includes repealing Jackson-Vanik, will have little direct impact on U.S.-Russian trade.

"In a possible debate on [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] for Russia, members of Congress may very well consider whether their concerns regarding Russian regulations on agricultural imports, intellectual property rights protection, or limitations on foreign investment have been sufficiently addressed in the bilateral agreement," the report stated. "Other issues regarding overall Russian economic or foreign policies, such as Russia’s economic ties to Iran, could also emerge."

Of course, Russia would also need Georgia to agree to its WTO accession, but that’s a whole other story.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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