Finding a full partner in Putin's Russia

The Russia-hosted G-8 summit put a useful focus on Moscow's role as a fellow problem-solver with the US and Europe. Fixing crises such as Middle East wars, however, isn't easy when the US and Russia squabble over such issues as meat inspections.

The summit's mood was cool after the two nations tried but failed to use the weekend gathering in St. Petersburg as a deadline to agree on terms that would allow Russia, the world's second-largest oil producer, to join the World Trade Organization. The US is the only one of the WTO's 149 members still blocking Moscow's entry.

The trade standoff is more than just a matter of finishing up years of negotiations that have come down to such sticking points as whether Russia's meat safety inspectors will be able to visit US slaughterhouses. Rather, these talks, and more important, a possible final WTO bilateral deal that would be presented to Congress this fall for approval, are really shadow play for redefining how the US sees Russia's role 15 years after the cold war.

Washington's attitude during those 15 years has been to help post-Soviet Russia look like a Western-style, free-market democracy that also serves as a junior partner in global affairs. But a rising US disappointment, especially in Congress, over President Vladimir Putin's policies has pushed the US to toughen its view. In May, Vice President Dick Cheney revealed a new tone, saying Russia "can be a strategic partner and trusted friend" but only if it adopts "international" values.

Pushing tough terms on Russia for WTO entry is one way the US hopes to impose those values. The treaty, for instance, forces a country to improve its legal system so that foreign investors can be assured fair treatment under the rule of law. It can also be used to reduce state ownership of the economy which, in Russia's case, has only increased with greater Kremlin control over Russia's vast mineral wealth and a "resource nationalism" that uses petroleum exports as a diplomatic weapon.

This new US toughness on many fronts, however, has fed into Moscow's historic fears of being isolated. It also risks worsening an economy that, while healthy on the surface with growth spurred by petrodollars, has deep poverty and declining population.

Pushing Russia too hard for internal reforms or to fall in line with the US on issues such as Iran could backfire. The Kremlin may only feel a greater need to crack down on domestic dissent or to ally itself even more with US foes.

One sign that the Bush administration may be backing off its pressure is a recent about-face on the longstanding US policy that barred cooperation with Russia's civilian nuclear fuel programs. But Mr. Bush will really signal a potential new stance toward Russia in the details of a WTO deal. Then it is up to Congress, in blocking the deal or not, to tell Moscow whether it will become a full partner in global affairs.

Both the reality and symbolism of Russia's WTO entry carry great weight in how much the two nations will cooperate for years to come. Mr. Putin has much to answer for in how he runs Russia. But too strong a response by the US might only lead to a new cold war.

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