Boehner calls for tougher line on Russia

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday accused Russia of trying “to restore Soviet-style power and influence” and called on the Obama administration to take a tougher line with the former Cold War foe.

In a rare foreign-policy address, Boehner warned about the consequences of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s expected return to the presidency, suggesting the U.S. should reconsider its policy of a “reset” with Russia.

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The Speaker also put the Obama administration on notice that the House would not act on legislation permanently normalizing trade relations with Russia until it resolves a territorial dispute with neighboring Georgia. Such a move could complicate U.S. efforts to help Russia join the World Trade Organization.

“Within Russia, control is the order of the day, with key industries being nationalized, the independent media being repressed and the loyal opposition beaten and jailed,” Boehner said in a 15-minute address at a Russia conference at the Heritage Foundation.

“Russia uses its natural resources as a weapon and plays ball with unstable and dangerous regimes. In Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.”

The Russia speech was a departure from Boehner’s intense focus on spending cuts and the economy during the first 10 months of his Speakership, and was closely watched by a business community looking for signs of trouble in an expected House vote on trade with Russia.

A chief benefit of Russia’s entry to the WTO is permanent normal trading relations with the U.S., which could trigger new investments in Russia’s economy. WTO members are required to guarantee one another permanent normal trading relations, which guarantees certain tariff levels and rules for investment.

A vote on that status is expected once Russia agrees to terms with the rest of the WTO’s members on joining the organization. 

Boehner linked the WTO vote to a border dispute between Russia and Georgia stemming form the war between the two nations in 2008. He said he had seen “alarming reports” that the Obama administration was pushing Georgia to acquiesce to Russia’s demands.

“The administration should resolve this stalemate in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of Georgia,” he said. “Then — and only then — will movement on the WTO question be worth considering.”

The timing of Boehner’s speech serves as a warning to the administration that the House would not act on trade relations legislation without a resolution to the fight with Georgia. A source said the administration has been pushing behind the scenes for Russia to enter the WTO before the end of the year. 

The Speaker argued that recent moves by the Russian leadership — most specifically Putin’s planned return to power — call into question the Obama administration’s outreach efforts toward Russia since 2009. The “reset” policy led to the signing of the New Start Treaty on nuclear nonproliferation, which the Senate ratified last year.

“I think it’s only appropriate to ask whether the Obama administration will now reconsider its policy toward Russia,” Boehner said. “Let me be clear: I’m not here to argue for open conflict, or against productive engagement.”

The Speaker said the U.S. should look to work with Russia on arms control, counterterrorism and trade but should not downplay human-rights abuses as it seeks to boost relations.

“We cannot sacrifice values, or get away with walling off our interests from our moral imperatives,” Boehner said. “We can and should make clear certain ideas are non-negotiable while keeping the door open for cooperation.

“Instead of downplaying Russia’s disregard for democratic values and human rights, we should call them on it. Publicly, forcefully, frequently,” the Speaker added. “The United States should insist Russia ‘reset’ its own policies. If those appeals require teeth, the House stands ready to provide them.”

Boehner criticized Obama’s decision to cancel a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and said the House would oppose restrictions on the U.S.’s missile defense capabilities. The Speaker called on the administration to “do more to compel the Kremlin to curtail its relationship with Iran,” citing the recently foiled bomb plot in which men with links to Iran were accused of conspiring to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), questioned Boehner’s warning on Russia’s WTO bid.

“It’s too late to block Russian entry into WTO,” he said. “So I don’t really understand what [Boehner is] thinking about, because if Russia is in WTO and we have not given them normal trade relations status, it’s our companies that get hurt.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative did not respond to a request for comment.

— Originally posted at 1:30 p.m. and updated at 8:05 p.m.