WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that the Obama administration shouldn't consider Russia's decades-long bid to join the World Trade Organization until Moscow settles its border dispute with ex-Soviet state Georgia.
In a hardline speech to a conservative think tank, the Ohio Republican said Russia has displayed an inclination to "restore Soviet-style power and influence," using its wealth of natural resources such as oil, natural gas and metals as a political weapon.
Boehner pressured the administration to rethink its "reset" policy with Russia, and he specifically questioned the U.S. role in the border fight weighing heavily on Russia's bid to join the WTO by year's end.
"The administration should resolve this stalemate in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of Georgia," Boehner said. "Then — and only then — will movement on the WTO question be worth considering."
Russia is the largest economy still outside the WTO, which regulates trade among 153 member states, despite being in talks to join since 1993. It needs to negotiate its accession with individual WTO member states, and its conflict with Georgia has left talks in a deadlock.
Boehner said there have been "alarming reports" of the Obama administration pressuring Georgia to accept Russian boundaries set after their 2008 war.
The White House disputed Boehner's criticism, with spokesman Tommy Vietor arguing that the administration "remains unwavering in its commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity. We have made clear, both in private channels and in public statements, that the United States will not support Russia's WTO accession until Russia and Georgia reach agreement on their outstanding trade-related issues."
In August 2008, Georgian troops tried unsuccessfully to regain control over the Moscow-backed rebel province of South Ossetia. Russia sent troops that routed the Georgian military in five days. Georgia entirely lost control of both South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia.
In Russia on Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev's economic adviser said Moscow will never meet Georgia's demands. Georgia alleges that the two regions that split off in the war are occupied territory used as staging points for Russian terrorist incursions.
"We have not completed the talks with Georgia," said Arkady Dvorkovich, according to the Interfax news agency. "The demands put forward by our neighbors do not concern the demands of the WTO but concern something completely different, something we cannot and never will be able to meet."
Dvorkovich also warned of serious economic ramifications if Russia is unable to join the WTO.
"It will be worse for everyone, us and our partners," he said. "The barriers will remain high and could even increase because of the crisis."
If Russia joins the WTO, Congress would have to vote on approving permanent normal trade relations.
The WTO requires members to extend unconditional most-favored-nation trade status to all other members. But the U.S. currently denies this status to Russia under Jackson-Vanik, the law passed in 1974 in an effort to pressure the Soviet Union to allow emigration, primarily of Jews.
Boehner, who spoke at a daylong symposium at the Heritage Foundation titled "The Risks of the Reset," invoked former President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and their toughness in dealing with the former Soviet Union.
He said Russia will soon be led by Vladimir Putin, who is "known to harbor intense Soviet nostalgia" and could remain in power until the middle of the next decade.
"I think it's only appropriate to ask whether the Obama administration will now reconsider its policy towards Russia," Boehner said. "Let me be clear: I'm not here to argue for open conflict, or against productive engagement."
The speaker said the United States can work with Russia on arms control, counterterrorism and trade. But he argued that the administration must push Moscow to limit its relationship with Iran, specifically its nuclear program, and pressure the Kremlin on its human rights record.
"The United States should insist Russia 'reset' its own policies," Boehner said. "If those appeals require teeth, the House stands ready to provide them."
The speaker said the United States leads when it spells out its values, a step that is not an act of belligerence, "and certainly nothing to be sorry for."
"It's a duty, one we accept confidently and gratefully. And I would add, it's a president's duty as well," he said.
In response, Vietor said Obama's policy toward Russia has ensured supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran, a new START II treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and resume inspections and securing nuclear materials to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.