Putin's push for the START treaty
A piece of paper tacked on a courtroom door in Moscow Wednesday morning offered Vladimir Putin's contribution to the Obama administration in its push to pass the New START treaty through the U.S. Senate this week.
The notice contained the surprising announcement that the verdict in the latest trial of Russia's best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had been put off from today until Dec. 27. Judge Viktor Danilkin, who announced the decision in a fax to the Khamovnichesky Court, offered no explanation for his decision. But Khodorkovsky's defense team was quick to see a connection between the postponement and the White House's hopes that the Senate will take up the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty before it recesses for the year. After all, judges in Russia are not independent; Danilkin's sudden decree was almost certainly issued on orders from the Kremlin.
The START treaty is much prized by Obama, who has made it a priority over legislation repealing the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays, the DREAM act for immigrants, and many other backed-up bills. But most experts believe that as a substantive matter, the treaty offers considerably more benefit to Russia than to the United States. It would modestly reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 in each country, while also limiting launching systems to 800 on each side. Russia is already headed below those levels, treaty or no; by obliging the United States to make parallel cuts, Moscow maintains the fiction that it remains a strategic equal of Washington.
Republicans in the Senate have already raised a series of objections to the treaty, and the White House has been fighting to line up the nine GOP votes needed for passage. Among other things, Republicans object to language in the pact's preamble linking offensive and defensive weapons, which they say might check the development of U.S. missile defense systems that Russia has long opposed.
The administration has credibly refuted that objection and others, while pointing out that ratification of the treaty is needed in order to restore inspections of Russia's arsenal, which ended when a previous treaty expired a year ago.
The Khodorkovsky case, however, threatened to tip the balance against the treaty.
The former oil magnate has already been imprisoned for seven years on the trumped-up tax charges that Putin used to seize his Yukos company, which once was Russia's largest private enterprise. With his term due to expire next year, the government brought new charges against Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev. The new case is ludicrous in its implausibility -- the two men are accused of stealing the entire oil production of their company over a period of years -- and its presentation in court by Putin's bumbling prosecutors has been so inept that even the judge has had trouble containing his impatience.
The expected reading of the verdict this week has attracted a lot of international attention. On Tuesday a long list of international leaders released an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev in which they said that "the rule of law and human values" had been "openly abused and compromised" by the case. Perhaps more significantly, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a potential swing vote on the START treaty, last week raised the impending verdict against Khodorkovsky in a speech in Washington, saying that "if ever there were a case of 'legal nihilism' - of an affront to the very values of equal justice that we hold dear - the case of Khodorkovsky is it."
The paper on the door of the Moscow court prevented the Obama administration from having to seek the vote of McCain and other senators on START even as the judge read out a verdict that is expected to extend Khodorkovsky's prison term for up to 14 more years. That could change the outcome in the Senate; sadly, it is not likely to change the result of the most momentous human rights trial of Russia's post-Soviet history.
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