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Rough Ride for U.S.-Russia Ties

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: June 8, 2007

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President Bush mentioned “freedom” no fewer than forty times in a speech delivered in Prague this week. His words took aim at despots around the world in places like Iran and Venezuela, but also jabbed at the ruler of Russia, President Vladimir Putin. Over a span of seven years, as this Backgrounder explains, relations between the two leaders have gone from chummy to chilly, mainly because of disputes over regional security and the rollback of Russian democracy. Freedom, President Bush is now well aware, has been “derailed” (RFE/RL) in today’s Russia. So it came as rather a shock when on June 7, Putin suggested (NYT) that Russia partner with the United States on a missile defense shield in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

Even if President Bush accepts the offer, relations between the two nations will likely remain tense. As this February 2006 CFR Task Force report accurately prophesied, relations almost seemed bound to deteriorate as Russia edged closer to authoritarian rule and away from democratic norms. Its alleged use of energy as a foreign policy tool to intimidate neighbors like Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia raised alarm bells across Western Europe, which relies on Russian natural gas. The unsolved murders of a string of anti-Kremlin dissidents, including the muckraking journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the ex-KGB officer-turned-whistle blower Alexander Litvinenko, sent relations with several European countries, particularly Britain, into a downward spiral. And the plan to stage a missile-defense radar system in former Warsaw Pact states like Poland and the Czech Republic, following on the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, has Putin fulminating in a Cold War vein (Reuters).  

Putin’s complaints are not entirely unfounded. He says Russia’s unilateral moves to draw down its weaponry from Eastern Europe and reduce its regional forces only spurred the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to strengthen its presence. Reflecting a widely held Russian analysis, Putin denies the missile shield is aimed at Iran, whose ability or interest in striking Europe remains in doubt. “We are being told that this missile defense system is there to defend against something that doesn't exist,” he told reporters. He promises a new nuclear arms race if plans for the missile shield go forward.

The Christian Science Monitor writes that recent tensions may be explained by Russian politics, “in which the strategy is to demonize internal and external enemies to legitimize the leadership (just as in Soviet days).” CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich thinks the presummit polemics are just a way to air grievances and defuse tensions before Presidents Bush and Putin meet face to face. “Where there is tough rhetoric in the run-up to G8 meetings,” Sestanovich said at a recent CFR meeting, “it's often to make it easier for the leaders to be polite to each other in person.”

Nor is that to say all is bleak in U.S.-Russia relations. Both sides agreed to step up nuclear monitoring (WSJ) at 350 Russian border crossings. And there may be greater areas of agreement on the Iran front as the UN Security Council enters into its third round of negotiations, given that neither Washington nor Moscow favors a nuclear-capable Iran. But in order for Putin's missile defense proposal to gain any traction, relations with Washington must improve. Asks Sestanovich, “Can you one day have the Russians acting in such a way as to advertise their lack of trust in the United States, and the next day insist that the United States trust them?”

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