New chill in US-Russia ties

Amid tough talks with officials Jan. 25-26 in Moscow, Albright lookedto likely future leaders.

It was only last year when they danced together, singing duets from "West Side Story" and discussing a vision of a united superpower approach in the post-cold-war era.

How times have changed.

When US Secretary of State Mad-eleine Albright came to Moscow this week, she tried to lead her erstwhile partner, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, into steps he resisted following.

The two maintained cordiality for the public eye, but behind the scenes talks between the two nations were as chilled as the snowy streets. Over the past six weeks, relations have soured to their worst since the cold war. A host of contentious issues - Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, debt, and missiles - augurs sullen disengagement for the foreseeable future.

Russian newspapers unanimously noted a new anti-Americanism, with Izvestia on Jan. 26 saying: "Contradictions have reached a critical level ... in practically all major spheres."

Russia has been growing disillusioned with the US's circumventing its veto power at the UN Security Council. The gulf between the two began with the bombing of Iraq in December. Anger deepened earlier this month when sanctions were slapped on Russian companies and institutes allegedly exporting weapons technology to Iran.

The final straw was last week's announcement that the US plans to spend $6.6 billion to develop a national missile defense system. The US wants to change a 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to be able to press ahead - but Moscow refuses.

An irritable Russian Duma (parliament's lower house) is now unlikely to ratify the 1993 START II strategic arms treaty. And ire over the ABM issue could spell less cooperation with an expanding NATO and mean closer military ties with China and rogue states like Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Russian politicians say.

Russia is likely now to step up competition with the US over oil pipelines and contracts in the Caspian Sea, an area of rare remaining Russian influence that the US government has prioritized as of utmost strategic importance.

A lose-lose relationship?

"There is a growing feeling that we don't have a lot to gain from a close relationship with the US, and that we don't have a lot to lose with a colder relationship," says Georgi Kostin, a leading member of the Communist-led opposition who heads the parliamentary committee overseeing military technology.

"A good relationship with the US assumes that we will support them on things we don't believe in. If we are so much ignored, why should be do anything for them?"

The lecturing tone of Ms. Albright and her delegation of senior Treasury and National Security Council officials hit home to Russia the indignity of being treated as a secondary power dependent on economic handouts from the West.

Analysts expect stronger nationalist policies - and resistance to perceived economic blackmail - after next year's presidential elections which will bring to power a successor to Boris Yeltsin, who has ruled Russia since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Psychologically an angry backlash is very possible in the next government," says Alexei Pushkov, a political commentator from the influential ORT television station. "There is a big change from 1991 to '95 when there was feeling that we should move together. The feeling now is to reject the dominant position of the US and defend our own interests as we see them."

This disillusionment with Washington may lead to less Western leverage over the Russian economy. Despite a mutual desire by Mr. Primakov and the International Monetary Fund to come to a deal for more aid, there is a growing feeling among Russian politicians across the spectrum that the price - painful fiscal measures and loss of control over policymaking - is too high.

What's good for Russia

American officials, who asked not to be named, brushed aside Russia's objections that it was not being treated as an equal partner. They stressed that it was in Russia's own interests to avoid pariah status from defaulting on loans, and risk losing IMF help by proceeding with proposed big budgets.

The officials added that the proposed missile system was aimed at the likes of North Korea and not Russia, and anyway, deployment would come only around the year 2005.

What was clear was concern about the post-Yeltsin era. Albright met with political figures who may be crucial come 2000.

Little comfort can be drawn in Washington from the fact that four men perceived as presidential front-runners are not pro-Western: Primakov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former paratrooper Alexander Lebed, and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Aware of Mr. Luzhkov's political prospects, Albright met with him Jan. 25 to discuss issues not ordinarily discussed with any city mayor - US policy in the Balkans, missiles, and bomb strikes on Iraq.

The talks were blunt, frank, tough, and even acrimonious at times. Absent was the diplomatic delicacy of the Primakov-Albright minuets. "Very little ground was given on either side," says one US official.

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