US takes a harder line with Russia

A reassessment of relations cites concerns about oil and democracy. But does US have much leverage?

The White House is getting tough with Russia, concerned with what it perceives as Vladimir Putin's retreat from democracy and a willingness to use petropolitics to reassert regional dominance.

President Bush will bring the hardening stance with him when he visits President Putin this summer - even though it may complicate American efforts for international action against Iran over nuclear ambitions.

The new US pressure comes as an emboldened Russia tries to balance several goals. It is determined to build stability and order at home, as well as regain lost ground in the Eurasian region. And it wants to enhance its membership in the club of world powers.

It is this desire for world respect, analysts say, that the Bush administration is hoping to play on. The problem, they add, is that a more confident and economically robust Russia may be less susceptible to outside pressures than just a few years ago.

"Image and a sense of Russia's place in the world count for the Kremlin, no question," says Andrew Kuchins, a specialist in US-Russian relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The problem for the administration now is that these things counted a lot more for the Russians when they were weak."

The new line on Russia comes after a lengthy interagency reassessment of Russia policy by the administration and as Mr. Bush prepares to attend the G-8 summit in July, which Russia is hosting for the first time.

The tone of Bush administration policy since 2001 was set by Bush's famous comment that he had looked into Putin's soul and was pleased with what he saw. But it appears that the administration has taken a second look, and likes less well what it's seeing now.

The darker vision was outlined by Vice President Dick Cheney in a speech last week in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which he said that a regressing Russia has "a choice to make" between "a return to democratic reform" and "greater respect among fellow nations" or more "unfair and improper" restrictions on Russians' rights.

Deliberately making his point at a democracy conference in a former Soviet satellite attended by the presidents of several other former Soviet dependents, Mr. Cheney also said Russia is using its vast energy holdings "as tools of intimidation or blackmail" on its neighbors.

Cheney's words were criticized in some corners as likely to antagonize the Russians at a time when the administration is touting its diplomatic efforts. But others welcomed them for their candor on US concerns. "I do see Cheney's statements reflecting a new tone and a new theme in terms of our engagement with Russia, but I don't interpret them as an effort to isolate Russia," says Mark Brzezinski, the National Security Council's director of Russia-Eurasian affairs in the Clinton administration.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose academic training was in Soviet studies, has also started casting doubt on Russia's direction. And some human rights activists and even some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have called on Bush to boycott the July summit in St. Petersburg to send a jolting message to the Kremlin.

Bush says he will attend the summit. But in the meantime, US officials have been communicating to their counterparts in Moscow the kinds of steps Russia could take in the coming weeks, particularly on political rights.

For some experts, Russia's concern for its role as a great power is such that the kind of pressure the United States is applying can have an impact. But others counter that with oil at $70 a barrel, Russia is feeling its oats and is more prepared to balance its image interests with reestablishing its regional power and influence.

"In particular, the Kremlin is sensitive about how Russia's role in the world is perceived," says Mr. Brzezinski, now manager of the McGuireWoods law firm's international practice in Washington. "That sensitivity provides some leverage to make progress in areas such as democracy and human rights, and also energy, Iran, and Russia's relations with its neighbors."

But Mr. Kuchins, who directed Carnegie's Moscow Center before returning recently to Washington, is not so sure. He notes that there is little appreciation in the US for how rapidly Russia has recovered economically with rising oil and natural-gas prices. "We had leverage over the Russians in the late 1990s," he says, "but now we don't."

Others warn that any public campaigns to influence Russian political or diplomatic moves could actually backfire. "The Cheney speech may have been the administration trying to shame the Russian government into making some changes before the G-8," says Nicolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and editor of the National Interest, a realist foreign-policy review in Washington. "But if that's the case, they've seriously misread both the Kremlin and Putin himself."

The Kremlin is not happy about the prospect of having the G-8 summit it envisioned as a forum on energy security hijacked by the Iran controversy, Mr. Gvosdev says. Iran is one of a handful of issues putting Moscow in a tight spot between its "seat at the table of world leaders," as he says, and its regional ambitions.

But Gvosdev says Cheney is clearly in the camp of US policymakers who believe Russia isn't going to be terribly cooperative on Iran anyway. "So instead of cultivating [the Russians], the focus is on letting them and everyone else know that if there is going to be a solution on Iran, it's going to be with the US and a coalition of the willing."

If anything, some experts say the building friction between the US and Russia may be looked back on as the first stage in what becomes an increasingly antagonistic relationship.

"The Cheney speech was a strong signal to Russia that a continuation of its policies, both on the domestic front and in the region, will put it on a collision course with the US," says Ariel Cohen, an expert in US-Russia relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. But he says that shot over the bow is unlikely to sway the Russians.

"Russia is trying to succeed in this delicate balance of its interests, but at the end of the day, they have decided to build their own coalition, with China, Venezuela, Iran, and others, to oppose the power of the US."

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