According to experts in Moscow, Russian and U.S. differences over Ukraine threaten to unhinge their bilateral partnership. The view in Washington, however, appears less dramatic. U.S. President George W. Bush maintains his original view of Vladimir Putin as a "friend," an assessment he made in June 2001 after his first meeting with the Russian president. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials still offer only upbeat commentary on U.S.-Russian relations. But as RFE/RL reports, the perception gap in the way Washington and Moscow view their relationship could be a sign of trouble ahead.
Washington, 8 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In recent days, top Russian officials have repeatedly lashed out at what they perceive to be unjustified U.S. interference in foreign affairs.
In India last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Washington for trying to impose what he termed a "dictatorship of international affairs." And yesterday, after meeting in Moscow with U.S.-backed interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Putin took a shot at a key U.S. foreign policy goal -- fair and free elections in Iraq next month.
"I honestly say that I cannot imagine how elections can be organized under a full occupation of the country by foreign troops," Putin said.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday suggested at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that the West uses the OSCE as a tool to influence politics in former Soviet states. He did not mention Ukraine, but the reference was clear.
"I don't think we have already reverted to a Cold War model. But the danger that we may return there exists. And it is a relatively serious danger. If leaders on both sides do not understand this and don't think they need to take urgent measure to prevent a Cold War return, then we may slide into one." -- analyst Viktor Kremenyuk
Lavrov's remarks sparked an immediate rebuttal. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters at the OSCE conference in Sofia that Kyiv's election crisis must not be viewed as a struggle between Russia and the West. Rather, he said the issue there and in other post-Soviet nations is about letting people choose their own leaders.
The comments by Powell and Lavrov highlight growing strains in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
For Russia, the United States, and the West are meddling in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. But for the United States and the West, Russia backed a nondemocratic vote in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people rebelled and the West now stands on the side of the democrats. Moscow interfered, not the West.
But analysts in Moscow say that for the sake of U.S.-Russian relations, Washington needs to understand that Putin sees it differently. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Institute in Moscow says that Putin views the events in Ukraine as a personal affront.
"Putin considers what is happening in Ukraine to be a premeditated, intentional operation by the United States with the aim of eliminating the current regime in Ukraine and replacing it with a pro-Western, pro-American regime and if possible, splitting Ukraine away from Russia and diminishing Ukraine's links with Russia and other republics of the former USSR and turning Ukraine into a Western foreign policy staging base at Russia`s very border," Trenin said.
Whether this is an objective analysis can be debated. But Trenin says it shows that the conflict over Ukraine has the potential to do great harm to the broader U.S.-Russia relationship.
"For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I have the feeling that the 'Cold War model' is not just a phrase but something that could turn into reality, under certain circumstances. I think what happened in Ukraine and what is happening in Russian-American relations as a result is very serious. I think this is not realized clearly enough in Washington," Trenin said.
Viktor Kremenyuk of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow shares that view.
"I don't think we have already reverted to a Cold War model. But the danger that we may return there exists. And it is a relatively serious danger. If leaders on both sides do not understand this and don't think they need to take urgent measure to prevent a Cold War return, then we may slide into one," Kremenyuk said.
The question for Washington now is whether it can satisfy Moscow -- without sacrificing its support for democratic reforms in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries.
So far, the Bush administration acknowledges no serious strains with Moscow. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli commented yesterday after Powell and Lavrov's remarks in Sofia.
"There are a lot of very important, very significant positives. There are also, as in any relationship, issues where we see things differently. But it is the mark of a mature, nuanced, sophisticated relationship that you can engage in international fora, such as the OSCE, or engage bilaterally, as Secretary Powell did in the last two times he's been to Russia, on issues where you don't see eye-to-eye," Ereli said.
Analysts in Washington say the administration is trying to pull off a delicate balancing act.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a scholar with the Cato Institute, a private think tank in Washington. Carpenter tells RFE/RL that the Bush administration wants to stay on good terms with Putin because it believes Russia can help Washington on a host of key issues, such as the war on terror, support in the United Nations Security Council and nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran.
"We have gone to great lengths not to drive a wedge between the West and Russia. And although we might want to see the reform forces win in Ukraine, we don't want that victory to come at the expense of creating serious tensions with Russia. So it's a delicate balancing act that the administration is trying to carry out, and so far, rather skillfully," Carpenter said.
But others are more critical.
James Goldgeier is a professor of politics at George Washington University and an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. Goldgeier believes that Washington must not worry about alienating Russia by taking a stand on democracy and human rights in the post-Soviet space.
"We can talk about Ukraine, we should be able to talk about Ukraine, without talking about Russia. This is not a Cold War issue. This is not an issue of, 'The U.S. would win and Russia would lose.' This is an issue of a chance for Ukraine. And Putin has chosen to talk in Cold War terms. He is using the language of division. There's no reason we have to buy into [accept] his approach," Goldgeier said.
Rejecting Carpenter's analysis, Goldgeier says Russia is actually not acting as a good partner to the United States on key global issues.
As a result, he believes their bilateral relationship will eventually have to be redefined.