Russia Has Become the Enemy

It's time for the United States to start thinking of President Vladimir Putin's Russia as an enemy.

This isn't simply because a former KGB agent turned Putin critic died last week in London after ingesting a dose of polonium-210, an element that usually functions as a neutron trigger in atomic bombs. Nor is it that Alexander Litvinenko's death is the latest in a series of killings, attempted murders, imprisonments and forced exiles whose victims just happened to be prominent opponents of Putin. It is because the foreign policy of Russia has become openly, and often gratuitously, hostile to the United States.

Some examples: Last summer, Russia signed a billion-dollar arms deal with Venezuela; Hugo Chavez wasted no time fantasizing aloud about using the weapons to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. Last week, Russia began deliveries to Iran of highly sophisticated SA-15 anti-aircraft missiles, at a value of $700 million. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claims the missiles will "have no influence on the balance of power in the region." But the purpose of the missiles is to defend Iran's nuclear sites, which do threaten the balance of power. Ivanov also says he is "absolutely sure" the billion-dollar Bushehr reactor that Russia is building for Iran could not be used to build nuclear weapons. This is false and Ivanov must know it: The spent plutonium from the reactor easily can be diverted and reprocessed to produce as many as 60 bombs.

At the United Nations, Russia has opposed U.S. efforts to sanction Iran and North Korea for their nuclear programs and diluted the effects of the resolutions that were passed. The Russians say they oppose the use of sanctions because they "don't work." It's an odd claim coming from a government that in October brusquely imposed trade, travel and postal sanctions on neighboring Georgia.

It is said often that Russia's motives are essentially mercenary and thus amoral. That's only partly true. Paul Volcker's investigation into the Oil for Food scandal revealed that Russian companies did $19.3 billion in oil deals with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — by contrast, the French did a mere $4.4 billion — and that Russian individuals were the great beneficiaries of Hussein's illicit largesse. This is one reason, perhaps, why Russia vigorously opposed the U.S. invasion. As recently as July, Russia had plans to supply North Korea with advanced encryption and nuclear-storage systems. The total value of Russian arms sales to Tehran has risen nearly sixfold in recent years.

Yet Russia hardly depends on Iran as a weapons-export market, to say nothing of North Korea; most of its arms sales are to China and India. So why would Moscow, which has its own grave problems with Islamic radicals, abet the nuclear ambitions of a revolutionary Islamic regime that sponsors terrorism from Buenos Aires to Beirut?

Part of the answer, surely, has to do with the psychology of clientism and Russia's desire to assert and expand its sphere of influence. Part of the answer, too, is that a Russia that can obstruct U.S. purposes — whether in Latin America, northeast Asia or the Persian Gulf — must also be one that is relevant and powerful.

But there is also a fair bit of rank anti-Americanism at play. Take the September contretemps with Georgia, which involved Tbilisi's arrest of four Russian officers it suspected of espionage: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned darkly at a press conference that "this latest escapade . . . happened straight after NATO's decision to grant Georgia an intensive cooperation plan and [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili's visit to the United States." Was Lavrov playing to traditional Russian paranoia about the designs of outsiders on the motherland? Or did he really believe that Washington, Brussels and Tbilisi were conspiring trilaterally in this two-bit "plot"?

How does the Litvinenko murder fit into this? Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident now at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has often made the point that the best predictor of how nations behave toward their neighbors is how they treat their own people. "I think there's a very high probability [that the Litvinenko killing] was done by the security services," he said. The Kremlin's denials notwithstanding, the use of exotic poisons has been a KGB (now Federal Security Service) signature for decades, and killing Litvinenko in London would certainly be one way of letting the Kremlin's critics know that no one is immune anywhere. As for negative public reaction, Sharansky observes that "experience shows them that it's short-lived."

That's certainly been Putin's experience with this White House. It was U.S. President George W. Bush who first saw gold in Putin's soul, some time after federal troops had decimated the city of Grozny. It was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who came up with the formulation after the Iraq war that the U.S. should "punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia." And it was this administration that agreed last week to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, with Bush thanking Putin for his "time and friendship."

A case can be made for bringing Russia into the WTO, but caveat emptor: A government that trashes the rule of law domestically isn't likely to sit still for long in any rule-based organization. There is no case for Russia's continued participation as the eighth member of the Group of Seven, once a club for mature democracies only. Putting Putin on notice that only gentlemen belong in gentlemen's clubs would be the right first step. Treating him for what he is — "unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women," as Litvinenko wrote from his deathbed — would be the next.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, where this comment first appeared.