Two weeks ago, however, Putin appeared to liken the United States to the Third Reich. Bush, meanwhile, said in an interview May 21 with Reuters that he doesn't think Putin's Russia is on the path to democracy. On May 15 in Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Putin had agreed to moderate his government's rhetoric. RFE/RL interviewed Ted Carpenter, a foreign-policy expert at the Cato Institute, about the latest developments in Russia's relations with the West.
RFE/RL: It's been nearly six years since the famous Putin-Bush meeting in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia. Since then, it seems each man has done a lot that troubles the other. Where do their countries' relations stand today?
Ted Carpenter: We certainly have come a long way from the days in which George Bush looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and liked what he saw. A lot of things have changed. Obviously Russia has become markedly more authoritarian now than it was during the [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin era. That is regarded by U.S. officials as a very worrisome trend, and justifiably so. But there have also been a lot of other changes.
RFE/RL: What are those changes?
Carpenter: Russia is significantly stronger today than it was a decade ago when NATO first pushed its initial round of expansion, and the United States was able to set up shop virtually in Russia's back yard. Among other things, Russia -- with oil at $65 a barrel -- is in a much more powerful position than a Russia with oil at $15 or $20 a barrel. And Russian patience about the United States and its NATO allies taking advantage of Russia's temporary weakness in the post-Cold War era -- that patience is worn very, very thin, and we're seeing manifestations of that now.
RFE/RL: Is Russia's current source of geopolitical power, though, limited merely to oil?
Carpenter: Not entirely. For example, its control over the natural-gas pipelines gives it a great deal of political and economic leverage with the European nations. Its cooperation with China gives it ways to, at the very least, annoy the United States, if not weaken U.S. power. The fact that Russia is China's largest arms supplier and has been for a good many years. And Russia concentrates on providing China with weapons systems that would be especially useful in any kind of confrontation with the United States over Taiwan or some other issue in the Western Pacific. Notably, Russia does not give China -- or sell to China -- the kind of weapons systems that might be useful if trouble ever broke out along the Russian-Chinese land border.
RFE/RL: Is Russia making alliances elsewhere that also could serve to -- as you put it -- at least annoy or perhaps even weaken the United States?
"What Bush is trying to do is to limit the damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship. Washington does not want a second Cold War."
Carpenter: Russia is trying to cause more than a little difficulty for the United States. The activities of Moscow within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [which also includes China and the Central Asian states except Turkmenistan] are designed to make life difficult for the United States in the Central Asian republics. At one time the U.S. certainly had the goal of establishing very close working relationships with all of those [Central Asian] countries. It still has some relations with those countries, but not the degree of closeness that Washington once desired. And a lot of that is due to opposition from Moscow, or Moscow in collusion with Beijing and putting pressure on the Central Asian countries.
RFE/RL: Putin's rhetoric about the United States seems to be angry, while Bush sounds disappointed. What’s going on?
Carpenter: What Bush is trying to do -- what the entire administration is trying to do -- is to limit the damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship. Washington does not want a second Cold War. On the other hand, it also does not want the reversal of the U.S. geopolitical gains that it made in the decade or so after the end of the Cold War.
The United States shows no signs of wanting to give up on further NATO expansion, it's not going to give up on the deployment of an anti-ballistic-missile system, it still wants to establish close ties with the countries in Central Asia. So this is going to be a very delicate and difficult policy because Washington wants to remain on at least a reasonably cordial basis with Moscow, but consolidate those gains that it made. And that's not going to be easy to reconcile those two objectives.
RFE/RL: Early in his administration, Bush referred to China not as an adversary of the United States, but a strategic competitor. Does that describe how the U.S. government regards Russia today?
Carpenter: That's a fairly accurate term, and frankly I think that is an accurate term both to describe the relationship with Russia and with China: as strategic competitors. They're not allies, they're not friends. What we have done with Russia is that we have gone from a somewhat cooperative relationship with a great power to one in which we now have a rather contentious relationship with another great power. That's the extent of the deterioration.
RFE/RL: Do you believe this relationship can deteriorate further, and to a dangerous point?
Carpenter: One of the things that worries me the most is that we have extended NATO membership and [NATO] Article 5 security guarantees to countries on Russia's perimeter -- especially the Baltic republics. And we seem to have assumed that no Russian government will ever challenge those commitments. I feel that is a very dangerous assumption.
If Putin or if a future Russian leader ever becomes sufficiently upset with developments in one of the Baltic republics to contemplate threatening military force, much less using it, the United States is placed in a horrible position of either having to defend a commitment to a very minor country on the border of Russia, or reneging on that commitment, which would cast terrific doubt on U.S. credibility throughout the international system. Smart, great powers shouldn't get themselves into that kind of bind, but that's what we've done by taking advantage of Russia's temporary weakness to set up shop in Russia's strategic backyard. I think that will ultimately prove to have been a rather bad miscalculation.