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Western Press Review: Putin Seen Challenging Russia-U.S Relations

Prague, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian foreign policy -- and particularly its relations with the United States -- is the subject of several commentaries in the U.S. press today. All agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to change Moscow's policies on many fronts.


Much of the commentary about Russia-U.S. relations focuses on the conviction this week (Wednesday) of U.S. businessman Edmond Pope on espionage charges. The Wall Street Journal Europe says Pope was the victim of a "Moscow show trial." The paper writes in an editorial: "Whether Mr. Pope broke any actual Russian laws, we can't tell, certainly not from what went on at his trial. But it's clear from the methods used by the Russian state that Russian justice has reverted to the practices of Soviet days. Indeed," the paper says, "before the trial of Mr. Pope the fact that so many top government posts are filled by KGB remnants was considered merely 'troublesome.' Now it looks to be a serious threat to U.S.-Russian relations and the rule of law."

The editorial goes on: "One question that deserves examining is whether the U.S. government did all it could to prevent the Pope trial from becoming a political vehicle. President Clinton expressed 'concern' to Moscow and [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright raised the issue in her meetings with President [Vladimir] Putin. [It's] possible, even probable, that the State Department intervened in ways [it] won't disclose. Nevertheless, it's embarrassing, not to mention troubling, that the U.S. has so little clout that a circus like this [trial] could play out."

The paper argues further that "it is very dangerous for the U.S. to let Russia revive its Cold War methods without subjecting them to loud and serious challenge. [The] mistake of [President] Bill Clinton and his Russian point man, [Vice President] Al Gore, was to make all this too easy for the Russians. Their response to Russian misbehavior has been to brush all the complaints aside, [while] shoveling more money to Moscow. The Pope trial suggests that this soft approach is not working any better for the Clintonites than it worked for anyone else trying to do business with Russia."


The New York Times, while less critical of the Clinton Administration, agrees that the severe sentence of 20 years in jail, under a harsh regime, imposed on Pope raises what it calls "troubling questions about the quality of justice in Russian courts." It says further: "The verdict was issued within two-and-a half hours after closing arguments, raising concerns that a guilty verdict had been preordained by political authorities. [U.S.] officials and Mr. Pope's lawyer have asserted that key evidence was given under duress, and that key witnesses recanted all or part of their testimony."

"Yesterday," the editorial continues, "the chairman of Russia's presidential pardon commission predicted that the panel would recommend to President Putin that he release Mr. Pope on humanitarian grounds, [which the commission did this morning]. Mr. Putin may have calculated that he could strengthen his hand with the Russian people and security forces by making a show of protecting state secrets, and could then gain credit abroad by releasing Mr. Pope. Washington," the paper argues, "should encourage him to do so. [A] case like this should not be allowed to roil relations between Russia and the United States on the eve of a new administration."


In a news analysis for the Christian Science Monitor, Justin Brown says the U.S. is growing "more wary of a Putin-led Russia." He writes from Washington: "Putin has launched a diplomatic offensive that could further erode Moscow's fragile relationship with Washington. [He] has moved swiftly in the areas of weapons sales, arms control, and strategic alliances -- upsetting a delicate balance that was struck during the Clinton administration. He's also given the U.S. a flashback to the cold war with his pursuit of criminal charges against Edmond Pope."

"Taken together," Brown says, "Putin's initiatives will provide an early challenge for the next U.S. president, whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore."

He adds: "The most defiant move by Putin so far has been to try to sell arms to Iran, in violation of a secret 1995 agreement between Washington and Moscow that was brokered by Mr. Gore. The State Department sent a delegation to Russia Wednesday [Dec 6] to try to freeze the sale, which includes tanks and other conventional weapons. A long-term concern is that these kinds of transactions could escalate into the realm of ballistic missiles or nuclear technology."


The Washington Post carries a news analysis from Moscow by David Hoffman that says -- like the Wall Street Journal Europe's editorial -- the Pope trial shows again how much "Russian security services [have] revived under Putin." Hoffman writes: "Putin, [who spent most of his career in the KGB,] has elevated veterans of the KGB and its successor agencies to his inner circle and installed them in key government posts. Russia has been awash in allegations of espionage and spy trials, some of which, like the Pope case, appear to have been based on weak evidence."

Hoffman continues: "Putin has sought to restore the security services to the role in Russian political and economic life they enjoyed in Soviet times, alarming democrats, environmentalists and human rights activists. Critics say Putin has set a tone reminiscent of the old KGB -- intolerant of political criticism, hostile to civil society and trying to put the independent news media under government control." He adds: "In Putin's Russia, [too,] the old Soviet mind-set that newspapers and television are supposed to serve the authorities rather than criticize them is increasingly voiced by high-level officials."


Washington Post foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland writes of another Putin move that is riling Washington, his planned visit next week to communist Cuba. Hoagland says: "The timing of the trip is ruffling feathers in [that is, disturbing] the outgoing Clinton administration. The Russian president can seem to be taking advantage of the long post-election limbo in Washington to poke a thumb in Washington's eye. There are also questions about [Putin's] including the head of Russia's atomic energy ministry on the trip."

The commentator also says that, "in his year in power, President Putin has worked to deepen Russian ties with [Iran, Iraq and Libya,] and other Soviet-era clients. In his quest to collect back debts and open new markets for the Russian economy, [Putin] seems unconcerned about appearing to Bill Clinton to revive problems of the past rather than cooperate with the United States on the world's regional conflicts."


A commentary in the Wall Street Journal Europe by analyst Vladimir Socor discusses what appears to be still another change in Russian foreign policy by Putin -- Moscow's new attitude toward the Organization for Security and Peace in Europe, or OSCE. Socor writes: "Putin seems set to reverse Russia's course and priorities [in the OSCE]. Sphere-of-influence politics were back with a vengeance at the year-end meeting [Nov 27-28] of the OSCE's Ministerial Council. The meeting [had] to deal with a Russia seemingly content, this time, to form a minority of one -- not counting Belarus, which often acts like a Russian satellite -- in trying to grab back parts of the ex-Soviet territory."

The commentary goes on: "The foreign-affairs ministers of 55 [OSCE] member countries failed to hold Russia to its obligations to withdraw [its] troops from Moldova, close down at least two military bases in Georgia, observe the southern flank ceilings set by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and cooperate with international efforts to restrain the dictatorship in Belarus." He adds: "The Russian side, using the OSCE's own rules, blocked the adoption of resolutions on those and other points. After two days and nights of intense negotiations, the conference broke up without adopting a comprehensive final document."

Socor argues that "Belarus, Moldova and Georgia now face direct threats to their independent statehood from new Kremlin leaders wedded to the old sphere-of-influence politics." He says: "If those countries are left to their fate, their immediate neighbors from the Baltic states to Ukraine to Azerbaijan would be the next in line for pressure and intimidation. Secretary of State (Madeleine) Albright rightly termed 'tragic' the omens that emerged at the OSCE's year-end meeting. But," he concludes, "the Western world must recognize that it has ample resources to make sure that no one turns the clock in Europe back to the time before 1991."