By Frank T. Csongos and Andrew F. Tully
Relations between the United States and Russia appear to have become strained -- most recently because of Washington's decision to expel at least four Russian diplomats accused of spying. Russia calls the situation reminiscent of the Cold War. The U.S. says it is just trying to be realistic in its approach to Russia and wants friendly relations.
Washington, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The new administration in Washington says the United States will pursue a realistic policy toward Russia by vigorously protecting America's national security interests.
U.S. officials say the expulsion of four suspected Russian spies underscores this new approach. At the same time, they say Washington intends to maintain good relations with Moscow -- although analysts say the ties are strained for the time being.
Sergei Prikhodko, a senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the situation regrettable and, as he put it, "a fallback to the Cold War epoch."
Complicating the U.S.-Russian relationship, the State Department has decided to elevate its contacts with Chechen officials. Last year -- when Bill Clinton was president -- the department had only low-level meetings with Ilyas Akhmadov. And it emphasized that it did not recognize him as the foreign minister of the breakaway Russian republic, but only as a private citizen. It also noted that the meetings were held at a Washington hotel, not at the State Department.
Under U.S. President George W. Bush, this week's meetings with Akhmadov are being held at the State Department. But the department says Russia should not be upset because these contacts demonstrate that the U.S. is merely interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war in Chechnya. And the U.S. has reiterated that it considers Chechnya to be part of Russia.
Moscow denounced any meeting with a man it calls a "terrorist." Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov characterized the meeting as "one more link in the chain of unfriendly actions toward Russia."
As for the expulsion of the diplomats, Bush seems unconcerned, saying good relations with Russia are possible. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said on Thursday the decision to expel the Russians was part of a realistic policy.
"The action reflects the president's approach to foreign policy and to relations with Russia, which is an approach that is going to be based on mutual cooperation, finding areas of agreement and broadening them, but also based on realism. And that's why the president authorized the State Department to take the step that it took last night [Wednesday]. The president believes it's the right thing to do. And that's why he took that step in this post-Cold War era."
Celeste Wallander, of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank, says that unlike President Clinton, the Bush administration is not reluctant to be blunt with Moscow.
According to Wallander, the Bush approach is not to disengage, but to change the direction of engagement. She told RFE/RL that when American and Russian officials discuss issues, such as missile defense or European security, the U.S. side will now approach the negotiating table differently.
"They're not going to come with the presumption that we need to engage Russia. The argument is that Russia needs to engage us."
She says that with Bush in the White House, Putin can no longer fall back on the excuse that Russia is a fledgling state whose missteps should be overlooked. According to Wallander, the current State Department is making it clear that Russia must act like a responsible state if it wants to be treated like one.
"It's not a change in the substance of the problem. Those problems have been there for the last couple of years. But it's a signal, I think, about how those problems are going to be handled."
Another analyst is Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, an independent Washington think- tank. He points out that recently Bush spoke pessimistically about Russia, saying it may not be an enemy, but it could become a threat.
"That's almost a distinction without a difference. If you regard a country as a potential threat, it may not be an enemy at the moment, but it's considered certainly an enemy in waiting and at the very least an adversary."
Carpenter says Bush has realized expectations that his administration would be more confrontational with Russia, China, and North Korea. In fact, he says U.S.-Russian relations are becoming "frosty" -- as he put it -- very quickly. Carpenter took particular note of State Department officials meeting with Akhmadov.
"Certainly flirting with a dialogue with Chechen rebels is something that's either calculated to send a message to Moscow or sends an inadvertent but very hostile message."
Wallander says it is not necessarily surprising that the U.S. and Russia are acting as if they are reliving the Cold War. She expressed concern about Putin and his approach to his country's security services -- particularly given the Russian president's background as a former agent of the KGB.
She says Putin seems to be moving his country toward a new governmental model. According to Wallander, Putin's model does not look entirely democratic, nor does it look like Soviet communism. But she says Putin is clearly interested in imposing state control over Russians -- and this has engendered what she calls "fear and insecurity" about endeavors ranging from transnational personal contacts to attracting foreign business investors.
But Wallander says there is no guarantee that Putin's reliance on security services will be successful.
"Russia isn't what Russia was in the 1930s, when Stalin began to create his own system of state control. It is more internationalized, it is -- you know, the Russia of the 1930s, the population was not very educated, didn't know much about the outside world, was largely rural."
She says it would be very difficult for Moscow to close off Russian society from the rest of the world, especially in the era of television and the Internet. But for the near future, she does not feel optimistic about how Putin will handle the governance of Russia. And as a result, she concludes, the world can probably expect relations between Moscow and Washington to be bitter over the next few years -- although not as frightening as they were during the Cold War.