The U.S. State Department has folded the office that dealt with Russia and other former Soviet republics into its European Bureau. Was that a signal of lessening U.S. interests in relations with Moscow? RFE/RL Washington correspondent Frank Csongos interviewed several independent analysts and filed this report.
Washington, 29 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The State Department has closed down the office that handled U.S. relations with former Soviet republics, assigning its duties to the sprawling European Bureau. Some analysts view the move as a downgrading of relations with Russia.
The reorganization was disclosed earlier this month by Elizabeth Jones, who was nominated by U.S. President George W. Bush to be assistant secretary of state for European affairs.
Jones told a Senate panel considering her nomination that Secretary of State Colin Powell folded the Office of the Special Adviser for the New Independent States into the Bureau of European Affairs. Jones said the bureau will be responsible for managing relations and coordinating policy toward all the states of the Eurasian region -- from Iceland in the West to the Russian Far East, from the Nordic states southward to Central Asia, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.
Dimitri Simes, president of the Washington-based Nixon Center, a non-governmental think tank, said the department's move was logical. Simes, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations, views the move as more of a bureaucratic measure than a strategic one. Still, he tells RFE/RL, Russia has become less of a priority for the Bush administration.
"Russia is no longer a superpower. And clearly the Soviet Union was a superpower primarily because of military power, and the military power is simply not there anymore. And there is no Cold War-style conflict. For all these reasons, Russia is bound to play a much lesser role in American policy-making."
Simes said the Bush administration sees relations with China as the top challenge facing America.
"China is of course on the rise. If you are thinking in terms of geopolitical power struggle, and even military conflict, certainly the potential for that is much higher in the U.S.-Chinese relationship than the U.S.-Russian relationship. The problem the Russians are facing is [that] they really stopped being rivals [with America], but they did not quite become a meaningful partner."
The State Department's Jones told the senators that there are sound policy reasons for restructuring a key part of the department 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nearly a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Jones said the department's move is designed to promote greater strategic coherence in U.S. foreign policy formulation and implementation. She said the United States is now well positioned to promote its interests across Europe and Eurasia through the changes it has encouraged -- an enlarged NATO, a deeper partnership with the European Union, maturing relationships with the Caucasus and Central Asia, and a broad policy agenda with Ukraine and Russia.
Jones said: "The great lesson of the 20th century is that the destinies of the North American and Eurasian continents are joined. If Europe is at peace, America is more secure. If countries in transition, such as Russia and Ukraine, develop stable and democratic states, both Europe and America are more secure. If Europe prospers, America does so as well."
Keith Bush (no relation to President Bush) is director of the Russia and East Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank. Bush tells RFE/RL:
"It seems to me that from the beginning the Bush administration wanted to downgrade relations with Russia, promote relations with China -- China is the number one problem in the future -- and that it didn't want to have a special adviser on Russia."
By eliminating the special adviser position, Bush said:
"In a way, they [that is, the U.S. administration] effectively downgraded the status of Russia as one of our major partners."
But Bush also believes that the U.S. is re-evaluating its attitude toward Moscow. He says the tone of the U.S. administration has become friendlier.
Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute think tank, also located in Washington, says the U.S. administration has made a greater effort in recent weeks to repair relations with Russia and perhaps put the relationship on a sounder footing. He tells RFE/RL this has become evident by the U.S. consulting with Russia on its plan to develop a limited missile defense system, which Moscow opposes. Carpenter says:
"I would describe the current relations between the U.S. and Russia as somewhat weary and tentative on both sides. The Bush administration did not get off to the best start with the president himself describing Russia as not being an enemy but being a potential threat which, I think, many Russians would regard as a distinction without a difference."
President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana next month (16 June). It will be their first meeting and may shape the course of U.S.-Russian relations for years to come.