WASHINGTON – In a pointed but mostly symbolic expression of displeasure with Moscow, President Bush on Monday canceled a once-celebrated civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Russia.
Bush had sent the agreement to Congress for approval in May, after a much-heralded signing by the two nations that capped two years of tough negotiations. On Monday, he officially pulled it back, a move announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We make this decision with regret," said Rice, in a statement read by spokesman Sean McCormack. "Unfortunately, given the current environment, the time is not right for this agreement."
The action combines with a recently announced $1 billion foreign aid package for tiny, West-leaning Georgia and the time Vice President Dick Cheney spent last week railing against Russia in former Soviet republics to form the U.S. administration's punishment of Moscow for its invasion of Georgia The nuclear deal was highly unlikely to win approval on Capitol Hill this year anyway, but Bush decided to actively withdraw it to make a loud statement.
Moscow, though, might not be much inclined to hear it.
Newly flush with riches from sales of its vast energy resources, Russia appears to feel it no longer has as much need for the potentially billions in revenue the deal would have provided it by allowing Moscow to establish a lucrative business as the center for the import and storage of spent nuclear fuel from American-supplied reactors around the world.
And the deal's disappearance puts a dent in some important global goals for Bush. The deal would have given Washington access to state-of-the-art Russian nuclear technology, while helping it address climate change by increasing civilian nuclear energy use worldwide and keeping nuclear material out of terrorists' hands.
But in a sign of the almost Cold War-like state of U.S.-Russia relations right now, Bush determined the extensive and unprecedented cooperation spelled out in the agreement is "no longer in the national security interests" of the United States.
"The U.S. non-proliferation goals contained in the agreement remain valid: to provide a sound basis for U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation, create commercial opportunities and enhance cooperation with Russia on important global non-proliferation issues," said Rice.
Though it has been clear for days that the Georgia invasion was the impetus for this expected decision, McCormack would not say so publicly. He said only that the administration has had "some deep concerns about Russia behavior" for some time. The U.S. embassy in Moscow informed the Kremlin last week that the move was coming.
One advantage of pulling the deal rather than allowing it to die on Capitol Hill as it surely would have is that it now remains effectively on ice. The president — or his successor — could determine the deal is once again in U.S. interests and resubmit it for approval. Rice signaled this by saying the administration will follow developments closely and reevaluate the situation at a later date that she did not specify.
Key lawmakers were suspicious of the deal from the start, fearing it could undermine U.S. efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program, because of Russia's extensive business and energy — including nuclear — ties with Tehran.
After the disastrous Georgia-Russia war, the deal's outlook became even more grim, with some lawmakers asking Bush to pull it to show Moscow its actions wouldn't be tolerated. There isn't enough time left in the fall legislative calendar for the required review period to run out — the kind of scenario that would result in it taking effect without congressional action.
The Georgia-Russia fighting began Aug. 7 when Georgia's military tried to re-establish control over its breakaway, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia. Russia joined the battle, brutally repelled the Georgian offensive and then pushed deep into Georgia proper, where many of its forces remain nearly a month later.
Moscow has recognized South Ossetia and Georgia's other separatist province of Abkhazia as independent states.
Administration officials determined almost immediately that Russia must suffer some consequences for its bloody use of force in a sovereign, Western-allied neighbor but wanted to take punitive measures in concert with Europe. They have been frustrated, though, at the lack of similar resolve among allies, who have offered condemnation of Russia but little else.
There may be more actions to come from Washington.
The $1 billion economic recovery package for Georgia puts the impoverished Black Sea nation in the top tier of U.S foreign aid recipients. It does not include any military aid, but U.S. officials have indicated some will probably be added in the future.
The U.S. had been helping the Georgian military modernize and it is likely the U.S. will help the Georgian forces rebuild again after their near-total rout by Russia. That effort could be given more punch — and will likely be greeted angrily in Moscow — if Washington agrees to start selling sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank military hardware to Georgia.
Moscow has already accused the U.S. of instigating or even helping Georgia make its ill-fated incursion into South Ossetia.