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Analysis From Washington - Clouds Over Russian Ties With West

Washington, May 23 (RFE/RL) -- Three developments widely reported in the media on Wednesday suggest that Moscow's relationship with the West in general and the United States in particular is now running into some difficulties.

Indeed, these disagreements are striking precisely because the general tenor of relations between Moscow and the West have been so good in recent months.

According to several news reports, Moscow and the U.S. remain far apart on Russian violations of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty now under review in Vienna.

In addition, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry took the unusual step of going public with American concerns that Russia might be about to sell advanced strategic missile technology to China, a step that would put Moscow in violation of the non-proliferation treaty as well.

And perhaps most surprising of all, given the West's desire to signal support for continued economic reform in Russia, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) took the unusual step of announcing that there would be a "pause" in the admission of new members just as Russia unexpectedly made an application for a place among the West's leading economic powers.

Several important considerations should be kept in mind in any assessment of what these developments in fact mean.

First of all, these disagreements although they are about fundamental issues are taking place within the context of a continuing close Western relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government. While the OECD decision suggests that the West is not yet ready to admit Russia to its ranks, a spokesman for U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Washington fully expected Yeltsin to attend the G-7 meetings next month.

Second, some Russian politicians -- perhaps especially Yeltsin -- may in fact be interested in playing up such differences. After all, many of Yeltsin's opponents have sharply criticized him as Vladimir Zhirinovsky did yesterday for making too many concessions to the West.

And third, most of the differences that surfaced in the media have been simmering in diplomatic channels for some time.

Moscow has been complaining about CFE restrictions for several years. Russia has made it clear as in the case of its nuclear sales to Iran that it will be the final arbiter of its behaviour in the proliferation area. And Yeltsin's government has exploited Western desires to support him to press Russia's case for membership in a variety of international institutions.

Because of this background, it is unlikely that the West is about to return to a Cold War posture, as some in Russia or the West may fear, or even to change radically its focus on Russia as the keystone of change in post-communist Europe, as some among Russia's neighbors may hope.

At the same time, however, the new willingness of the West and especially the United States to go public with these problems in the relationship highlights Western concerns about the directions in which Russian policy is going even before the June presidential vote.

And such public expressions of concern certainly indicate how the U.S. and the West might react to any radical change in Russian foreign policy after the elections.

For Russia and for Russia's neighbors, that may be the real message of these press reports: the West still hopes for the best from Russia, but it is now sufficiently worried about some of the directions in Russian domestic and foreign policy that it is now prepared to put down some markers to indicate what the West will and will not tolerate in the future.