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Russia/U.S.: Observers Overview Relations -- Part 1

In the run-up to last year's U.S. presidential election, Russian state media clearly favored Republican George W. Bush. A Republican leader, it was thought, would meddle less in Russian affairs, respect Moscow's power and concentrate on geo-politics. Bush is now president and, like Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, has chosen veterans of the Cold War as his closest advisers. Both leaders emphasize the need for a strong military and a foreign policy based on clearly defined national interests.

In a four-part series on the Russian-U.S. bilateral relationship, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at some of the main areas of potential conflict and asks the question: are Moscow and Washington headed for a new era of constructive engagement or a continuation of their previous conflict? This first part focuses on the general state of relations and the hopes, now partly dashed, by some in Russia that relations with the U.S. would improve under a Republican presidency.

Prague, 19 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In an interview with the French press this month, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had harsh words for Moscow.

President George W. Bush's top foreign policy counsel said she believed Russia "constitutes a threat to the West in general" and to America's "European allies in particular."

CIA Director George Tenet, in recent hearings of the U.S. Senate's Select Intelligence Committee, echoed those comments. Tenet accused Russia of making sophisticated weapons technology available to countries such as Libya, Iran, and China. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to halt American influence in the post-Soviet states while attempting to resurrect its own authoritarian control over domestic sectors. As Tenet puts it:

"Let me be perfectly candid. There can be little doubt that [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin wants to restore some aspects of the Soviet past -- [its] status as a great power, strong central authority and predictable society -- sometimes at the expense of neighboring states or the civil rights of individual Russians."

The reaction of at least some Russian officials has been harsh. On 16 February Russian Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, responding to Rice's comments, said they were "anti-Russian" in character and reminiscent of the Cold War.

"The rhetoric of the new [U.S.] administration in recent days is beginning to take on an anti-Russian character. It is enough to look at the interview with [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice in the weekly 'Figaro' magazine, where there are phrases characteristic of the Cold War."

So much for the Kremlin's hopes that relations would be easier under a Republican administration. Andrei Piontkowsky, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, tells RFE/RL he never believed the optimistic predictions appearing in Russian state media that relations with the U.S. would improve under a Republican-led U.S. administration.

"I never shared this almost pro-Republican [Party] euphoria. Let's look at the main thesis of this theory: that under Republican administrations, Soviet relations with America were better. During the last Republican administration the Soviets dealt with -- the Reagan-Bush administration -- [the Soviet Union] fell apart and stopped existing."

Piontkowsky says it is clear Washington has decided to toughen its approach to Russia on all fronts. He adds that Washington's recent expressions of concern regarding the case of Russian media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky -- who accuses the Kremlin of trying to quash freedom of the press -- puts to rest the Republicans' alleged lack of interest in Russia's internal affairs.

But do these early signs of disagreement really herald a return to the Cold War? It is still too early to draw any conclusions, but Michael McFaul, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, says that is a possibility. But he says the difference now is that Moscow, because of its weakened military, is at a distinct disadvantage:

"Russia is a marginal power, a marginal power in general in the international system. And so many within the new (U.S.) administration believe that yes, we should try to work with the Russians and negotiate some kind of system that will be amenable to their security needs. But, at the end of the day, if [the Russians] don't want to play -- if they don't want to go along -- the United States will just act unilaterally. And so the Russians are going to have to come to grips with that new approach and that new tone that I think you'll hear from the Bush team in coming months."

Piontkowsky agrees that Russia is likely to remain weak on the military front:

"For almost a year now there has been a very sharp, public conflict -- unthinkable in the armed forces -- between the defense minister, Marshall (Igor) Sergeyev, and the chief of the general staff, General (Anatoly) Kvashnin. They accuse each other of trying to destroy the armed forces. What kind of practical reform can you have when the two top military commanders feud like this in public?"

The consensus among U.S.-based analysts, both conservative and liberal, is that the new Bush administration is likely to push for the development of a national missile defense shield as well as for a second wave of NATO expansion, in spite of Moscow's objections. They also say that Russia and the U.S. are likely to remain rivals in Central Asia and the Caucasus, regions with vast energy resources.

But until Russia can improve its economy and reform its military, it has little chance of acting as an effective counterweight to U.S. policy.

In the next three parts of our series on U.S.-Russian relations, we will focus on specific aspects of the bilateral relationship and the challenges which will confront both countries in the next few years.