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Analysis & Opinion
30.11.10 An American Nightmare
By Tai Adelaja

The latest release from whistle blowing Web site WikiLeaks has not been the bombshell that many feared it would be in Russia, although some of the exchanges between American diplomats about Russia are unflattering enough to send shivers down the authors’ spines. The consensus among Russian politicians and diplomats is that this is an American nightmare and that the United States has a lot of damage control to do.

"This is their September 11 in the field of diplomacy," Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov told reporters on Monday. Zyuganov said the documents are a scandal for the Barack Obama administration, but warned that the leaks should prompt the Kremlin to review its embrace of Washington's reset in relations.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov largely brushed off the scandalous leaks, saying that Russia will base its policies on the concrete actions of its partners rather than the documents leaked on Sunday by WikiLeaks. "It's certainly amusing reading, but in actual policy we prefer to be guided by the concrete actions of our partners," Lavrov told journalists in New Delhi, RIA Novosti reported.

The Kremlin, too, sees “nothing new or worthy of comment” in the documents. "Fictional Hollywood characters hardly deserve commentary," Natalya Timakova, a Kremlin spokeswoman, told Russian news agencies on Monday in reference to a secret cable sent by the U.S. embassy in Moscow that said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "plays Robin" to his strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's “Batman.”

The latest WikiLeaks documents were released on Monday with advance copies provided for news organizations including Le Monde, The New York Times, the London-based Guardian, Madrid-based El Pais and Hamburg-based Der Spiegel. In Russia, only billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s Russian Reporter Magazine claimed to have advance copies of the dumped documents.

In what appears to epitomize American diplomatic carelessness, many of the more than 2,500 secret documents slated for release by WikiLeaks are unclassified, and none are marked “top secret,” the government’s most secure communications status, according to The New York Times. Only some 11,000 are classified “secret” and 9,000 are labeled “noforn,” shorthand for material considered too delicate to be shared with any foreign government. Four thousand are designated both “secret” and “noforn.”

One classified document published by Russian Reporter contains rude guesses by American diplomats about the future of the Putin-Medvedev tandem. "Medvedev and Putin work well together, but Putin holds most, and the best, of the cards in the tandem relationship," says the cable sent by U.S. ambassador to Russia John Beyrle. The document describes Medvedev as "pale and hesitant" in comparison with the "alpha-dog" Putin. Despite Putin's authoritarian image, there were also suggestions in the documents that the ex-KGB officer was finding it tough to prevent his decisions from getting bogged down in Russia's notorious bureaucracy. “His return to the Kremlin is not inevitable, but should things remain stable, Putin remains in a position to choose himself, Medvedev, or another person as Russia's next president,” the leaked cable said. The cable urged American policymakers to “continue to engage where possible with Putin, who will continue to have a significant say in Russian affairs for the foreseeable future, regardless of his formal position.”

Another cable that originated from the U.S. Embassy in Baku and was published by Russian Reporter offered glimpses into the assessment of current Russian leaders by their former Soviet peers. In the document, dated February 24, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said he considers Medvedev "a modern, new-generation intellectual," surrounded by people whom he does not control. Aliyev told visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns that he has personally witnessed Medvedev taking decisions that then required further approval before they were implemented, referring specifically to a border demarcation agreement that he had agreed with Medvedev only to have it stymied by "others," presumably in the prime ministerial office. "Many high-ranking officials don't recognize (Medvedev) as a leader," Aliyev said. He also believes that there are signs of a strong confrontation between the teams of the two men, although not yet between Putin and Medvedev personally. Responding to a question about Nagorno-Karabakh talks, Aliyev said that he was convinced that president Medvedev's efforts have been sincere, but said that he believes that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has his own separate opinion about the desirability of a Nagorno-Karabakh resolution. "I have no evidence, but I can feel this," Aliyev said.

The site also released a secret cable sent after a February 8 meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then French Foreign Minister Herve Morin, in which the defense secretary offered some harsh assessment of Russia. "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government is an oligarchy run by the security services,” Gates said according to the cable. "President Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than Prime Minister Putin, but there has been little real change." Gates also pressed Morin to rethink the French sale of the amphibious assault ship, the Mistral, to Russia, a sale that several NATO member countries and Georgia loudly protested around the time of the meeting. The cable details how strongly Gates pressed the French on the issue and how strongly he was rebuffed.

One of the most incriminating U.S. diplomatic cables claims that Russia told Israel it would cancel the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in return for access to advanced Israeli drone technology. Russia is also said to have offered $1 billion for the technology, according to Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, who disclosed the details in a December 1, 2009, meeting with U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher. Israel declined to provide Russia with its latest unmanned aircraft, saying it was concerned that the technology would end up in Chinese hands, Gilad said, according to the cable. In September Russia canceled an $800 million contract to supply an S-300 air-defense battery to Iran after the United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions against the Persian Gulf nation.

Deputy Chairman of State Duma Defense Committee Yury Savenko said in an interview that talk about Russia wanting access to advanced Israeli drone technology is mere speculation, as Russia already produces sophisticated unmanned aircrafts. Savenko dismissed claims in the WikiLeaks documents that Russia was offered $1 billion in exchange for advanced technology for the manufacture of the drones to stop the supply of S-300 missiles to Iran. "Russia was guided by completely different motives when it decided to cancel the contract," Savenko said. "We never intended to aggravate warming relations with the United States and our European partners." He added that the so-called sensitive data released by WikiLeaks were not credible and that its publication will hardly dent the warm relations between Moscow and Washington.

Some of the dumped documents revealed that U.S. and Russian officials disagreed on a number of global security issues, including the Iranian missiles. A document dated February 24 and labeled "secret" says that U.S. representatives expressed the belief that North Korea supplied Iran with missiles during a meeting between the United States and Russia. The Russians expressed doubts about the claim, citing lack of evidence, the cable states. In what the cable describes as a "vigorous session of questions and answers" discussing ballistic missile threats, Russia detailed its assessment of Iran's missile program, and the degree to which Russia believes these programs constitute threats that would require missile defense responses.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ties to his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi also came under scrutiny, with talk of "lavish gifts" and a "shadowy" Russian-speaking Italian go-between. Berlusconi was also described as the European mouthpiece for the Russian prime minister in the leaked documents. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that there was no need to jump to conclusions about references in the leaked documents. "We have to wait and see what level of diplomats made these comments, and in what documents they appear," Peskov said, Interfax reported. "And anyway, we have to find out if it is actually Putin they are talking about."

Jailed U.S. Private Bradley Manning, who had top-secret clearance as an intelligence analyst for the Army when he was stationed in Iraq, is believed to have provided the latest leaked documents. Pentagon investigators believe Manning accessed a worldwide military classified Internet and E-mail system to download the documents. Manning, 22, was charged in June with several violations of the U.S. Criminal Code for allegedly transferring classified data without authorization.

WikiLeaks' founder, Australian activist Julian Assange, has no home address but he often pops up in Sweden and Iceland, where Internet anonymity is protected by law, according to RIA Novosti. He is being hunted by Pentagon investigators and is suspected of releasing confidential U.S. State Department documents. An unnamed Russian secret services expert warned WikiLeaks last month that the “right team” of people could simply shut down the whistleblower Web site forever, after Assange revealed that Russian readers will find out a lot of new things about their country.
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