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Why Russia resents US tack

As Bush hosts Putin to repair fraying ties, a mood of misgiving rooted in the 1990s looms over the summit.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2007


As presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin began their 24-hour visit in Kennebunkport, Maine, Sunday to patch up a fraying relationship, a long list of flash points loomed over them.

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But what may weigh most heavily is a mood of misgiving rooted in the 1990s – a decade that saw social breakdown, impoverishment, and democratic eclipse in Russia.

For many in the West, the realization that ties with Russia are in trouble has dawned only recently. But the narrative of many Russians recalls nearly two decades of "unfair" treatment, beginning with the betrayal of hopes that the West would build a post-cold-war order that Russia could fully belong to.

"[Former Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev's new thinking helped to end the cold war, but he did not get an equal response from the West," says Anatoly Chernyayev, one of Mr. Gorbachev's top foreign policy advisers in the waning years of the USSR. "We took more steps than the West ever did, and unfortunately the Soviet Union disappeared; Russia was humiliated, liquidated as a great power."

That view is echoed by Gavril Popov, Moscow's popular mayor during the tumultuous and hope-filled days that led up to the USSR's collapse. He was a staunch reformist and coleader of a pro-democracy movement that played a key role in Russia's decision to abandon communism and join the Western-led world community.

It's a bit jarring, then, to hear Mr. Popov today enumerate a long list of ways he believes the West – particularly the US – failed to offer Russia meaningful help after the Soviet Union faded, and even contributed to the social and political problems that followed.

"Any democratically minded person couldn't help but be disillusioned," he says. Ultimately, he adds, the deep disappointment of the 1990s led to backlash against Western values and support for Mr. Putin, who in February railed against "unilateral" US foreign policy in a speech in Germany.

"The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way," Putin said. "Nobody feels secure anymore, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law."

Antimissile push worries Russia

Russian anger is currently focused on a plan that is likely to top the agenda in Kennebunkport: US intentions to install 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland, with associated radars in the Czech Republic. The US says the system is intended to defend against a potential missile threat from rogue states, such as Iran, but Russia fears the weapons will erode its strategic nuclear deterrent. Putin has threatened to target Russian missiles on Europe, for the first time since the cold war, if deployments go ahead.

Washington's cool reaction to a Russian counterproposal – that the US use a Soviet-era radar in Azerbaijan instead – has sent white-hot rhetoric pouring out of Moscow. "Not only will the deployment of missile-defense components in Europe upset the strategic military parity, but it will also put at risk the mechanism of security interaction between Russia and [the West]," Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said last week.

This may perplex many in the West, who may wonder why the Kremlin can't accept repeated assurances by US officials that Russia is no longer regarded as an enemy. But some Russians warn that they see no room for trust. "Americans may not understand it, but this [missile-defense] issue is the last straw for us," says Andrei Klimov, a member of the State Duma's subcommittee on cooperation in Europe. "They need to evaluate the past two decades, and maybe they'll see why we are so upset these days."

Aggressive neo-Soviet agenda?