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U.S.: Views Differ On Engagement Policy With Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the case for continued U.S. "engagement" with Russia last week, saying it would be a huge mistake to try and recreate a Russian enemy. Her comments echo sentiments expressed in a recent U.S.-Russia foreign policy experts group briefing, hosted by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International peace. But, as RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports, that is where the similarity in views ends.

Washington, 23 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Secretary of State Albright's comments were made before the House International Relations Committee, where she testified last week in full support of President Bill Clinton's fiscal year 2001 foreign funding requests.

Albright noted what she called her "reasonably good meeting" in Moscow recently with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said they agreed on everything except Russia's military campaign in breakaway Chechnya. Still, Albright said she believes that it is in America's best interest to remain engaged with Russia, in order to better press reform.

Albright said troubles with Russia were "easy enough" to find, without manufacturing them. Thus, she said the U.S. should work hard to maintain existing U.S.-Russian relations.

A report recently released by the U.S. working group on U.S. Russian relations agrees that Washington needs to pursue a policy of broad engagement with Russia. But where the report differs with the Clinton Administration is in how that policy of engagement should ultimately be carried out.

Tom Graham, a former U.S. diplomat in Russia who presented the report at the Washington think-tank, explains:

"The (Clinton) Administration over the past six or seven years has expected and demanded too much from Russia in the foreign policy behavior, in the domestic politics and in their economic developments. The administration, in our view, has been deeply involved in Russia's domestic politics, actively taking sides supporting one group against another in Russia's internal affairs, and we wound up being too closely associated with (former Russian President Boris) Yeltsin and a small group of reformers that pursued policies that many Russians believe ultimately brought their country close to ruin."

Graham says the report's authors concluded that a "sober" appreciation that the problems facing Russia are too entrenched to be fixed simply by changes of personnel could help avoid the cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment that characterized the 1990s.

He said the U.S. working group report also takes a more somber stance on the current state of U.S.-Russian relations. According to Graham, the working group finds the relationship "deeply troubled."

"We may disagree over the time when the serious deterioration set in -- many people look to the decision on NATO enlargement in the Spring of 1997. I myself look to the financial collapse in Russia in August, 1998 as the watershed event. But it is clear that the last year and a half has been troubled. There's been the financial collapse, (disagreements over) Iraq, Kosovo, national missile defense, the bank of New York scandal and now Chechnya."

Graham said the report's authors believe that to a certain extent this "cooling" was inevitable after the initial euphoria at the end of the Cold War, particularly, the report cites, as Russia itself began to articulate its own national interests. The report also singles out lack of political will and imagination on both sides for further blame.

At the same time, Graham says, the U.S. needs to build a broader network of contacts, both in Moscow and in the regions, to guard against tunnel-vision (a narrow outlook) and to restore the reservoir of goodwill that has been strained over the past seven years.

U.S. working group panel member Chip Blacker, a former Senior Director at the National Security Council, spoke to the part of the report that seeks to assess future chances for a serious improvement in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship.

Blacker said the group agrees -- much like the current U.S. Administration -- that the main emphasis between now and the presidential election cycles in both countries should be on preventing further damage to the existing relationship. But Blacker said there was one potential "starter" in the short-term:

"The single most important factor driving the bilateral relationship between now and November will be the President's decision -- sometime this summer -- on whether or NOT and under what conditions this country would proceed with national missile defense. And I would predict that the odds are better than even that the U.S. will reach agreement on this complex of issues -- ABM (Anti-ballistic-missile defense), NMD (national missile defense), Start II and Start III, sometime between Putin's election in late March and August."

Blacker said the "narrowing" of the U.S.-Russian relationship to just this small set of arms control issues may be "regrettable." But he said dispensing of these issues was essential, if the bilateral relationship is to begin the long and painful process of recovery that all the U.S. working group members agree is so needed.

At the same time, the group notes that the best intentions of the United States will lead nowhere, if Russian officials do not act responsibly, or if they forsake engagement.

For example, the report authors note that "without a concerted, equitable effort by the Russian government to deal with high-level corruption and an end to Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya, it will be impossible to create and sustain public support in the United States for broad engagement with Russia."

Further, they said that just as the U.S. should prepare the ground for renewed engagement once a new Russian leadership is in place, so Russia should prepare to take advantage of opportunities to engage the United States as a new Administration takes office early next year.

As for economic policies, the report's authors note that the United States needs to rethink its strategy toward economic reform and recovery in Russia. The U.S. working group says what is needed is a "rational" economic program that enjoys sufficient political support so as to have reasonable chances of being implemented. Further, the U.S. working group believes the United States needs to leave the initiative for developing an appropriate program in the hands of the Russian government, while at the same time reassuring them that U.S. is prepared to help, if the program makes sense.