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Russia: Powell's Trip To Address Growing Rifts In U.S.-Russia Relations

  • Jeremy Bransten

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell travels to Moscow for talks next week, following his visit to Georgia. In an interview this week, America's ambassador to Russia, Aleksander Vershbow, highlighted the growing rifts in the relationship between Moscow and Washington, which analysts say is coming under increasing strain.

Prague, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Moscow next week at a critical juncture in Russian-American relations. What was billed as an emerging "strategic partnership" between the two countries in the wake of the 9/11 attacks appears to have reached a dead-end.

A host of unresolved issues currently burdens bilateral ties, and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say relations have reached one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War.

Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of Russia's USA and Canada Institute, says, "I would say relations between Russia and the United States are worsening right now. Some aspects are frozen -- actually, not even frozen, but genuinely getting worse -- because the damage inflicted by the Iraq crisis has not been compensated by anything."

Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, agrees. He says Russian President Vladimir Putin, by strongly supporting U.S. President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 and offering his backing for America's war on terrorism, had hoped for a new level of bilateral cooperation that would offer financial, military, and geopolitical dividends.

Instead, says de Spiegeleire, Russia sees a U.S. administration determined to pursue its own interests on all fronts, eagerly pressing its economic and military advantage at every opportunity. "On the Russian side, I think there is definitely a sense of almost betrayal. There was a hope that a strategic partnership would be established. And in fact, what they have seen is a much tougher American position that, from their point of view, goes straight against their own interest," de Spiegeleire says.

The Kremlin's irritation at American policies touches all facets of the relationship. Aside from Iraq, where Moscow has relinquished all influence and is being pressured by the U.S. to forgive the former regime's extensive debts, Washington is making itself felt even closer to home -- appearing to frustrate Moscow's diplomacy in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

De Spiegeleire cites as examples Washington's support for both the new Georgian administration of Mikheil Saakashvili and Moldova's last-minute reneging on a deal that would have guaranteed a long-term Russian presence in their country. "Both in Georgia and in Moldova, the Russians really felt that the Americans went straight against them -- in Georgia by supporting the 'Rose Revolution,' as it's now called, the replacement of Shevardnadze by Saakashvili and especially the prospect of much closer Georgian-American relations in the near future, almost irrespective of what Russian-Georgian relations will be like. That's, of course, a big thorn in the flesh of Russia, especially with the Chechnya context set against that. Also, in Moldova, the Russians thought they had a deal. The Moldovan president had already signed it, and at the last minute -- and, in Russia's perception, under American pressure -- Moldova stepped back from a solution that was a relatively positive one for Russia, and so now everything is now back to the drawing boards," de Spiegeleire says.

On the military front, de Spiegeleire says Russia views America's planned troop reorganization in Europe, which could see the opening of U.S. bases in Poland and even further east, as another example of U.S. high-handedness.

"A lot of changes, of course, are afoot in American military posture that have nothing to do with Russia, but are still perceived in Russia as being a direct threat to it. It's very obvious now that the United States is very serious about repositioning its troops that used to be in Western Europe and that don't really serve any demonstrable purpose anymore there, and it's probably going to scatter them a little bit further eastwards. A couple of statements have been made that some things could even be done in the Baltics. Now, here again, the Russians thought that they had an implicit promise by NATO and by the United States that none of this would happen, that no significant military presence would move eastwards," de Spiegeleire says.

As for the United States, it too has reason to be disappointed in Russia's actions, as U.S. Ambassador to Russia Aleksander Vershbow noted in an interview this week with the newspaper "Vremya Novostei."

Vershbow said the arrest of Yukos oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovskii raised fundamental questions about the rule of law and the security of property rights in Russia. He said the hostile attitude to business as a whole in Russia that the case had whipped up could scare off American investors and damage bilateral political ties.

The fact that Yukos was widely seen to be considering selling a major stake in its operations to U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil before Khodorkovskii's downfall may partially explain the U.S. administration's concern.

But Vershbow also cited the way in which presidential elections were conducted in Chechnya, as well as last month's poll for the Russian State Duma, as factors which raised doubts about the direction of Russian democracy. Vershbow also said Russians are overly suspicious of Washington's foreign-policy motives.
"I would say relations between Russia and the United States are worsening right now."


Clearly, Powell will not have an easy time of it in Moscow. Viktor Kremenyuk, at the USA and Canada Institute, advises a soft touch when it comes to Yukos.

"It's a delicate issue -- not simple. And if Colin Powell poses questions regarding Khodorkovskii's treatment, this would be ridiculous and awkward. It's not his business. But, questions about what Khodorkovskii did to strengthen energy relations between the two countries, why this was destroyed and what is being proposed in exchange -- the U.S. secretary of state of course has a right to ask these questions," Kremenyuk says.

The fundamental problem overshadowing U.S.-Russian relations, however, may also not be resolved anytime soon, as de Spiegeleire explains.
"The real big problem in Russian-American relations is not only these irritants that exist and have always existed. The fundamental problem that I see in this relationship is the fact that the salience of Russia in American foreign policy has almost gone to zero. It had gone down tremendously after the end of the Cold War. With the global war on terrorism, it looked again like there might be a little bit of an upswing. But increasingly, people are recognizing that this is not the case. Russia can be an opportunistic target for American foreign policy whenever Russia can do something [for the United States]. But there is only so much that Russia can do. Russia in its current state is not an equal partner to the United States. It's probably not a very good junior partner," de Spiegeleire says.

That is not something Powell is likely to tell Putin in so many words. But the signals from Washington -- including the fact that President George W. Bush omitted any reference to Russia while discussing foreign policy in his annual State of the Union address this week -- appear clear enough.
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