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RUSSIA: U.S.-Russia Relations

Author: Lionel Beehner
May 6, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is on President Bush's agenda when he visits Moscow this weekend?

Bush is officially traveling to Russia to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE Day, the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II. His visit will include a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the leader's summer residence, and stops in two nations that were part of the Soviet Union until its collapse: Latvia and Georgia. At his meeting with Putin, Bush is expected to address longstanding issues including counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, and Moscow's munitions sales to Middle Eastern countries. Bush may also press Putin on what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called his excessive "consolidation of power." Russia, says Michael McFaul, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, "is the biggest setback to democracy that has happened on Bush's watch."

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What is the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship?

Strained, experts say. Putin's moves to consolidate the media, rein in Russia's governors, and jail businessmen like former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky fly in the face of the White House's global message to promote freedom and democracy. Washington is also concerned by Putin's interference in the election standoff in Ukraine, his continued efforts to control politics in Georgia and elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere of influence, and his decision to sell short-range missiles to Syria and nuclear equipment to Iran. From Russia's point of view, there is growing fear of what it views as American unilateralism, as evidenced by the war in Iraq, as well as policies it sees as aimed at curbing Russia's power, like NATO's expansion eastward into the Baltics. The Russians, simply put, "feel like Rodney Dangerfield," says Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. "No one gives them any respect."

What are the U.S. concerns about Russian democracy?

Among them:

  • Muzzling the opposition. Some U.S. policy-makers accuse Putin of abusing Russia's courts to settle political scores. The October 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest oligarch, was widely seen to be politically motivated, given his financial support of opposition parties. On May 16, he is expected to be convicted on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, and faces up to 10 years in prison. Many of Putin's most powerful critics, including media tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, have been forced to flee abroad to avoid prosecution. "Public political space in Russia has shrunk," says Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "Before you had a very cantankerous parliament. You had true, sometimes very feisty, political fights in the 90s. Now politics has become the intrigue behind the curtain wall, and that's it."
  • Ending direct elections for regional governors. Last year, Putin decided to end direct elections of Russia's 89 regional governors. Instead, candidates are now proposed by the Kremlin.
  • Decline of press freedoms. Russian journalists face daily harassment, intimidation, and in some cases, death, according to press watchdog groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia fifth among the world's most dangerous countries for reporters. Freedom House, in its annual report on freedom, gave Russia a score of six out of seven (seven being the least free), Moscow's worst ranking since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
What is Putin's response to concerns about the state of democracy in Russia?

In his April 25 annual Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin lauded democratic values such as freedom, individual liberties, and intellectual diversity. But when confronted directly by Bush about democracy backsliding in a February summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, Putin did not answer directly. Democracy, he said, "should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

Why is Bush going to Latvia and Georgia?

His meetings in Latvia with Baltic leaders, says Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist and author of Gulag: A History, are largely a symbolic gesture. For Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, the end of World War II marked not liberation, but the start of a Soviet occupation that lasted until 1991. As a result, Estonia and Lithuania are boycotting VE Day ceremonies in Moscow and want Putin to publicly condemn the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret prewar agreement that divided much of Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. Bush has publicly admonished Russia for its post-war occupation of the Baltics. "Bush is going to Latvia really to make [the Baltic people] feel better," Applebaum says.

The U.S. president's visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, his first to the Caucasus, is aimed at showing support for the recently elected, Western-leaning government of Mikhail Saakashvili. "It's kind of the exclamation point on the Rose Revolution [which occurred in Georgia in 2003]," says Robert Legvold, professor of political science at Columbia University. Russian-Georgian relations, never particularly strong to begin with, have soured in recent years. Georgians resent the fact that Russian troops are still stationed in Georgia, particularly in Abkhazia, a separatist region in northern Georgia. The Russians accuse the Georgian government of being soft on terrorism and not securing the Pankisi Gorge, a haven popular among Chechen rebels.

What is the Russian response to these visits?

Bush's visit to Latvia and Georgia has upset the Russians, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took the unusual step of sending a formal letter of protest to Secretary Rice on the matter. Some Russians say they believe the United States manipulated the outcome of the so-called Orange and Rose revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia to turn them in the West's favor. The United States has said its intentions in the region are not to dislodge Russian influence, but rather to spread democratic freedoms.

The next former Soviet republic to take center stage in this struggle will likely be Belarus, which Secretary Rice called Europe's "last true dictatorship" during an April visit to Vilnius, Lithuania. She also urged Belarus' political opposition "that the time has come for change." Her remarks, echoed by President Bush in a May 5 interview with Lithuanian TV, rankled Foreign Minister Lavrov, who responded that democratic reform "cannot be imposed from outside."

What other issues divide the United States and Russia?

There are many contentious issues, both foreign and domestic, affecting U.S.-Russian relations. Among them:

  • Arms sales to Syria and Iran. Russia, over objections by Israel and the United States, has recently agreed to sell short-range antiaircraft missiles to Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, according to the U.S. Department of State. Russia also continues to supply nuclear equipment to Tehran, ostensibly to be used for civilian purposes at Iran's $800 million, Russian-built Bushehr reactor. Moscow, under pressure from Washington, did agree to demands that Iran promise to return its spent nuclear fuel to Russia and urged Iran to allow in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Russia, which also sells aircraft, submarines, and tanks to Tehran, has emerged as Iran's biggest arms supplier. "Iran is a country and culture Russia feels it understands, and this was true through the Soviet era," says Anders Aslund, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russian and Eurasian Program.
  • Loose nukes. A chief concern of the United States is a "dirty bomb" or nuclear fissile material falling into the hands of a terrorist organization. Thirty-nine out of Russia's 46 main nuclear facilities have "serious shortcomings" and are poorly secured, according to a recent report by the Harvard-sponsored Nuclear Threat Initiative. Russia has not allowed U.S. inspectors access to these facilities, though it accepts millions of dollars in U.S. aid to secure nuclear sites. "On Russia's part, there is the sense that this is ... the inner sanctum where no foreigners are permitted access," said Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, in a recent interview with the Russian internet newspaper Gazeta. An agreement was reached at Bush and Putin's February meeting in Bratislava to secure Russia's excess weapons fuel, or convert it to commercial use, by 2008 rather than 2012, the previously set deadline.
  • Counterterrorism. Part of the United States' global war on terrorism is the expansion of U.S. and NATO military bases throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. For the most part, Russia has been accommodating. Yet there is also concern on Russia's part about the prevalence of these bases. "There has been a gradual encirclement of Russia by U.S. and NATO bases," says Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian studies and history at New York University. "You don't do that to a strategic ally."
  • Energy. Besides the dismemberment of Yukos, which shook some U.S. investors' confidence, another concern is a proposed rule that would limit gas exploration licenses to Russian firms. Russia, the world's second-largest oil producer, currently supplies the United States with just 3 percent of its oil, but given escalating oil costs in the Persian Gulf, that number is expected to increase, experts say. Still, Russia is not likely to supplant the Middle East as the United States' main energy supplier anytime soon. "Bottom line is Russia is a high-cost producer," says Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation. "The Arabs are not."
What are some positive sides to the U.S.-Russian relationship?

Experts say the personal friendship developed between Bush and Putin, much like the warm relations enjoyed between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, is important for reaching agreements and reducing tensions. "It's a huge asset," McFaul says. Moreover, the two countries have made important progress on a raft of critical issues, from sharing intelligence on terrorism, to fighting AIDS, to reducing nuclear arsenals.

What leverage does the United States have over Russia?

Not much, experts say. "The only leverage we have is to make threatening noises," Goldman says. Still, there is a growing chorus in Congress to expel Russia from the Group of Eight--the elite club of industrialized democracies of which Russia is a fledgling member--unless it adheres to democratic norms and values. Others in Washington have suggested withholding U.S. support for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. "I think we have more leverage than we realize, but we're afraid to use it," says Sarah E. Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Russian and Eurasian Program.

Are any major breakthroughs expected this weekend?

Not likely, experts say. "First of all, because of the ceremonial nature of the event," McFaul says. "On the macro picture, there's really not an agenda with U.S.-Russian relations. They'll talk about nonproliferation and how we need to do more, faster, but that's a conversation we've been having for a decade.

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