Iran General NewsJust when it's needed, Russia's not there

Just when it’s needed, Russia’s not there


New York Times: Probably not since World War II had there been such a high-water mark in Russian cooperation with America. Within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Vladimir V. Putin offered sweeping support for American operations in Afghanistan, including help in securing bases in Central Asian countries. The New York Times


WASHINGTON – PROBABLY not since World War II had there been such a high-water mark in Russian cooperation with America. Within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Vladimir V. Putin offered sweeping support for American operations in Afghanistan, including help in securing bases in Central Asian countries.

The Bush administration, in turn, built high hopes for more Russian cooperation — on strengthening ties with countries in Moscow’s old sphere of influence, thwarting the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, on guaranteeing energy supplies and much more.

Today — just when Russian cooperation has become vital on Iran — Mr. Putin’s post-9/11 statements seem like a curio from another time. And so do America’s hopes.

While Russia has re-established the confidence to go its own way, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney are said to be leading a major reassessment of what to do in response. In meetings with outside experts, they have begun asking how much the administration can expect of the Kremlin, and what it can do to change Russian behavior.

The answer to both questions appears to be: Not much. A more assertive Russia is back.

The most recent complaints about Russia are that it blocked a strong United Nations Security Council move against Iran, and has reached out to Hamas while most of the West is turning its back.

In addition, the days of the United States’ being welcome to set up shop in the old Soviet empire are gone; Mr. Putin’s government is working with Central Asian countries to push American forces out. It has placed new curbs on Western investment in energy. Worse, it has used its spigot on piped natural gas as a club to reward allies (like Belarus) and punish less obedient countries (like Ukraine).

President Bush’s top aides have come to dread what Mr. Putin might do when he plays host to the summit of leading industrial nations in St. Petersburg in July. He could turn it into a grand celebration of Russia’s new determination to pursue its own interests, whether his guests like it or not. He has already vented frustration over what he sees as American-led efforts to deny Russia its security interests, and to block its accession to the World Trade Organization.

“They know it’s not the relationship with Russia that they wanted,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a top Russia policy maker in the Clinton administration and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has attended meetings with Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney. He and other participants report that the administration is unsure how to proceed.

“While there might be some personal remnants of a good a personal relationship between Putin and Bush, they don’t think that’s the key,” Mr. Sestanovich said. “They’re hoping for residual cooperation on Iran, counterterrorism and maybe energy. Beyond that, they don’t see very much.”

Perhaps the most emotional breach has been over Mr. Putin’s crackdown on dissent, the jailing of a major industrialist and restrictions on political parties and the media. The United States sees a slide into authoritarianism; Mr. Putin explains those steps as correctives from a time of plunder and corruption under his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin.

Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush have emphasized that they are not giving up on Russia. They will not, as some harsh critics have suggested, try to eject it from the Group of Eight or disinvite it from cooperating with NATO.

But many administration officials say that on issues like the Middle East, they no longer expect an active partnership. The most they hope for is to persuade Russia not to get in the way of American goals.

Last month, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations rejected appeals to kick Russia out of the Group of Eight, but endorsed efforts to stand up to Russia on energy, democracy and its support of autocratic regimes in its neighborhood.

Within the administration, some thought is being given to dampening the St. Petersburg summit by holding a separate meeting of the seven nations that made up the Group of Seven before Russia joined in the 1990’s. Mr. Bush may meet with dissidents or visit a democracy on Russia’s periphery — as he did before and after visiting Moscow last year by making trips to Latvia and Georgia that infuriated the Russians.

BUT Americans may have to accept that Russia’s attitude has firm roots in a sense of identity, interests and destiny that is resurgent after years of humiliation.

In the 1990’s, Russia did not stand up to the United States, largely because it could not. It had shrunk physically and economically after the cold war. But since 1999 its economy has grown by two-thirds, helped by a 50 percent rise in oil production and a global ballooning of oil prices.

Along with the new economic clout has come a strong sense that Russia no longer must sit quietly and accept Western actions like the 1998 NATO war in Kosovo, which Mr. Yeltsin objected to but could not stop.

Even after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Putin found Russia in no position to resist Mr. Bush’s determination to rewrite the rules on missile defenses. But by the time the Iraq war started in 2003, he could — and did — object. Russia pointedly sat on the sidelines, alongside France and Germany.

“Russia is emerging from a 20-year cycle of decay, and it is rebuilding a strong central state in a way that future historians will probably decide was inevitable,” said Thane Gustafson, a professor of politics at Georgetown University. Its decisions to reassert state control over energy and use its riches to pursue traditional security interests were also probably inevitable, he said. “Energy,” he added, “is all the Russians have got.”

But energy can be a double-edge sword. Many experts say internal and energy trends will do more to determine Russian behavior than pressure from the West. Cambridge Energy Research Associates reported last month that the easy phase of modernizing Russia’s oil industry is over, and that further production increases now depend on Russia’s willingness to loosen its bureaucratic grip on that sector and accept Western investment.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest and a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, says the fact that both presidents are nearing the ends of their terms could be affecting the relationship’s tone, but something deeper is also happening.

“The administration’s disappointment with Russia is mirrored by a growing feeling in Russia that the United States is hell bent on preventing Russia from exercising influence in the world,” he said. “In America, we just never thought Russia would recover and begin to throw its weight around.”

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