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

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.

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.

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"[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?

In the West, this newly assertive Russia is widely perceived as the brainchild of Putin, a former KGB agent who has allegedly derailed his country's effort to build democracy, muzzled the media, used its energy-resources muscle to bully Russia's neighbors, and stepped out on the world stage with an aggressive neo-Soviet agenda.

From this viewpoint, the contrast with the 1990s appears stark. Under former President Boris Yeltsin, Russia appeared to be building democracy at home and following Western advice to privatize its economy, open its markets, and welcome outside investment.

Though Mr. Yeltsin grumbled constantly, Moscow ultimately accepted the expansion of NATO to ex-Soviet allies in Eastern Europe and even cooperated with US-led efforts to impose order in the former Yugoslavia.

"Russia didn't seem to present any problems to the West because its weakness made it compliant," says Mr. Klimov. "So, they decided we didn't matter and got used to doing things without considering our needs or wishes."

He adds that it's particularly galling today to hear Americans suggest that issues like European missile defense are none of Russia's business.

"We all know how Americans would react if Russia were to place strategic components in Cuba," Klimov says.

Russia may have grudgingly assented to the enlargement of NATO, which took in virtually all the USSR's former Eastern European allies and the three ex-Soviet Baltic states between 1998 and 2004, but has never fully accepted it, experts say.

"In the early '90s, Russia would have gladly join a new security system in Europe, but we were rejected, and NATO was expanded instead," says Sergei Karaganov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential Moscow think tank. "NATO was created to oppose the Soviet Union, and its main effect is still to isolate Russia."

For Russians, the '90s were a disastrous decade in which the economy imploded, crime flourished, and the shady privatization of state assets led to the rise of super-rich, politically connected oligarchs who did little to improve conditions for the majority.

"The West never seemed to know what to do with Russia and ended up supporting whoever claimed he would follow the American model, which meant Yeltsin, liberals, and the oligarchs," says Popov. "Whatever aid they provided was a pittance," which wound up in the wrong hands, he says.

Woes seen as effect of West's action

Yet the West was perceived to be actively intervening in Russia during those years, with advice, loans, and political support for Yeltsin which, rightly or wrongly, left the impression that the country's multiple woes were created from outside.

"In the Russian establishment, there is a growing feeling today that any 'solutions' offered by the West are mainly wrong," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal. "This was not the case a decade ago, when the West's success seemed to argue that they knew how things should be done. Now that feeling is gone."

Russian experts say the Bush administration should drop its previous complacency and realize that a serious breakdown in relations with Moscow is looming, and that forums like the face-to-face meeting in Kennebunkport may be the last chance to head it off.

"Each of the problems between us is not so serious taken separately, but together they present a very dangerous picture indeed," says Klimov.

President Bush, he says, should try to "think like a Russian for five minutes, and try to see things as we see them" before he goes into that next meeting with Putin."

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