RUSSIAN-US ties are threatening to plummet like a ripe apple as the ``Newt-onian'' Republicans in Congress prepare to lay down the law on aid to Russia.
The latest sign of trouble came this week from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigory Karasin, who blasted some Republican leaders for putting forward legislation that would turn the clock ``back, not just to the time of the cold peace, but to the cold war.''
Strong GOP criticism of Russia over foreign-aid spending, Moscow's military crackdown on the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and the pace of economic reform worries the Kremlin, says commentator Stanislav Kondryashov of the influential Izvestia daily.
``There is a certain nervousness in the relationship between the two countries. And in Russia, which is deeply mired in Chechnya, the level of nervousness is high,'' Mr. Kondryashov said in an interview. ``In the future, we can predict even harsher pronouncements on the part of certain Russian officials.''
Top Clinton administration officials, however, tried to reassure Moscow. ``I can say quite clearly and unequivocally that there is no anti-Russian bias in the US administration,'' United States Defense Secretary William Perry said in response to Mr. Karasin's statement.
Russian officials were wary when Republicans swept Congress in November. Key Republican congressmen and senators since have asked President Clinton to be tougher with Moscow.
Republican senators had also suggested that the Chechnya debacle meant that Moscow could not be trusted to comply with the START II nuclear treaty, but US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Tuesday rejected such statements before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Karasin took issue with Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York, who is seeking to bar US aid to Russia unless it meets requirements on intelligence activities, relations with neighbors, arms control, and economic reform.
The once-optimistic US-Russian relationship began to grow tense even before Moscow sent troops to Chechnya Dec. 11 to quash the republic's bid for sovereignty. But while disagreements have arisen over issues like NATO expansion, Russian arms sales to Iran, and Bosnia, they have not approached the animosity of the cold war.
``I would say that the comments yesterday were a bit of a surprise,'' says one Moscow-based Western diplomat.
But some Russians are clearly concerned over the future of US-Russian relations. The influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta printed a front-page report yesterday that, quoted a US government document predicting the emergence of a new Iron Curtain.
The US State Department has also raised concern over Russia. On Wednesday, it cited President Boris Yeltsin in its annual human rights report for anticrime decrees that contradicted constitutional rights, and it criticized Russia's bombing campaign in Chechnya.
ALEXANDER KONOVALOV of the USA and Canada Institute says that the brutal Chechnya campaign deeply damaged Russia's international prestige. ``No enemy could defeat us the way Russian authorities have defeated themselves,'' he says.
But Vladimir Averchyev, spokesman for the Committee on International Affairs in the State Duma (lower house of parliament), argued that Republicans would have difficulty arguing that the US should cut aid to Russia.
``If the US honestly intends to promote economic democracy in other parts of the world, to cut programs devoted exactly to that would be very difficult,'' he says.