WASHINGTON — DETENTE has ended. The CIA spy scandal saw to that. A new cold war has begun - not between the United States and Russia, but between the Clinton administration and key critics who think the White House is soft on Moscow.
For months a relative consensus existed in Washington that the new Russia should be greeted with open arms, or at least a firm handshake and a check. While there was some quibbling over aid levels, few voiced loud doubts about the need for general friendliness.
But unease over this approach has been rising. First came the success of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia's Dec. 12 parliamentary elections; next came the departure of some reformers from President Boris Yeltsin's government and increased assertiveness in Russian foreign policy - especially its heated rhetoric toward former Soviet republics.
Any US podium-thumping over the case of Aldrich Ames, the CIA official charged with funneling secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia, may well be disingenuous. Everyone knows the game of spy vs. spy goes on.
But Mr. Ames's apparent perfidy has provided administration critics a convenient rock to hammer with. Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has been pounding the hardest. Senator Dole on Saturday again called for a suspension of US aid to Moscow.
``The American people don't understand why we give aid on the one hand and allow this to happen on the other. They felt we had a new relationship,'' Dole said in a television interview.
Aid to Russia was already facing a battle in Congress this year. That became clear when the chief architect of Clinton's Russia policy, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, received 31 votes against him when he was confirmed in his post by the Senate earlier this month.
In particular, critics associate Mr. Talbott with a US strategy that calls for a special focus on Russia, as far as the nations of the former Soviet Union are concerned. The bulk of US aid and attention is to be directed toward Moscow; stability in Ukraine, the Baltics, and the former East bloc is assumed to follow from there.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Carter, takes aim at Clinton's grand strategy for the former Soviet Union in an issue of the journal Foreign Affairs being published today. The strategy is ``flawed in its assumptions, focused on the wrong strategic goal, and dangerous in its likely geopolitical consequences,'' argues Mr. Brzezinski.
The prospects for democracy in Russia are not good, according to the former Carter official. Instead Moscow appears to be reaching for a kind of proto-empire that counts on strong influence in its former republics and prevention of central Europe from joining NATO and the West.
The main goal of US policy for the region should be ``the consolidation of geopolitical pluralism within the former Soviet Union,'' writes Brzezinski. That means more money and attention for Ukraine in particular, whose stability and independence is likely to come under increasing pressure this year. Ukrainian Crimea, with a majority of its population ethnic Russians, is set to vote next month on independence and possible reunion with Russia itself.
Administration officials retort that their policy is not too Moscow-centric. Vice President Al Gore, after all, recently made a swing through the far-off former Soviet republics of central Asia.
The White House response to the Ames spy case has been an attempt to be firm and tempered at the same time, by kicking out one Russian diplomat yet emphasizing that aid needs to continue to flow - not out of charity, but because a stable Russia is important to US security.
Officials scurried to schedule a White House summit between the President and congressional leaders to make that very point.
``Our policy is one the President believes is in the US interest, including aid to Russia,'' said White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers last week.
This White House position is not without strong support.
Pat Glynn, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says ``this goofy spy thing is a waste of time. It's a bunch of legislators posturing.''
Deputy Secretary Talbott's emphasis on good relations with Russia is now a good idea, says Mr. Glynn. He believes that the roots of Russian belligerence come from a psychology of humiliation, and that to bully them would be risk making them as bitter as were many Germans between the two world wars. When President Yeltsin said in a speech last week that Russia would act on the foreign stage in accordance with its interests, he was only saying something any US president would echo in their own State of the Union address.
When Moscow suddenly dispatched peacekeeping troops to Bosnia, it smoothed the way for a cease-fire to take effect, according to Glynn.
``There is a big danger in overreacting to Russians in a negative way,'' he says.