Commentary: The Russia Paradox

In the final scene of the 1990 blockbuster film “The Hunt for Red October,” Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius considers what’s next for his country after defecting to the U.S. in a high-wire act that averts nuclear Armageddon. “A little revolution now and then is a healthy thing, don’t you think?” the Soviet submarine captain tells Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan.

He is, of course, talking about a revolution that would change the course of a superpower built on military might.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the mightiest country of the once-mighty Soviet Union is undergoing another sort of revolution. But this revolution, two decades in the making, puts Russia in the community of global trading nations, with all the benefits and pitfalls that come with it.

Russia’s Aug. 22 admission into the World Trade Organization cracks the doors wide open to a market of more than 142 million people, the globe’s ninth most populous nation.

And, as Senior Editor Peter T. Leach writes in this week’s Cover Story, some of the United States’ largest exporters — from heavy equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar to consumer products giants Microsoft, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble — are licking their chops.

But for those appetites to be satisfied, the U.S. will have to jump through hoops of its own: permanently exempting the Cold War-era relic Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. The law, which punished the former Soviet Union for restrictions on the emigration of Jews, stands in the way of the U.S. granting Russia permanent normal trade relations. Lacking that, nothing the WTO does will open Russia’s wealth of opportunities to U.S. exporters.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others are saying all the right things — that Russia’s exemption from Jackson-Vanik will occur sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as this month — that’s easier said than done in an election year heavy on rhetoric but short on legislative time.

And relations at the very top of the political chain of command instill anything but confidence that existing PNTR bills in the House and Senate will make it past the president’s desk. When President Obama met with Russia’s hard-line President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in June, media outlets described the pair as “chilly, like a cold Moscow winter.”

Obama’s November opponent, Mitt Romney, took it a step further at last month’s Republican Convention, calling Russia the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” prompting Putin to respond that a Romney win would mean a new Cold War.

If history tells us anything, it’s that former enemies make great trade partners. Germany is a $150 billion trade partner. Japan grew to become the world’s second-largest economic power on the back of U.S. trade and investment. And U.S.-Vietnam trade has skyrocketed sixfold in the 10 years since the two countries entered a bilateral trade agreement.

The opportunities Russia presents U.S. exporters are simply too great to ignore. This is no time to freeze them out.

Contact Chris Brooks at

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