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A Cold Wind Toward Moscow

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
May 8, 2006

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The gust of cold air that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently brought with him to the Baltic region did not go unnoticed in Russia. Speaking to a forum of newly democratic states from Eastern Europe in Lithuania, Cheney chided Russia for rolling back the political rights of its people and for using energy resources as "tools of intimidation or blackmail" against its neighbors. This is some of the toughest language in many years from a top American official toward Russia. U.S. officials quickly affirmed the speech carried the imprimatur of the highest policy levels of the Bush administration, prompting concern in the Russian media of an attempt by Washington to erect a new anti-Russian bloc in the region, or even of courting a "new Cold War" (BBC). Andrew Kuchins, a Russia analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the rhetoric is a bit overblown, but that Russian officials are clearly irked at what they see as U.S. double standards in promoting democracy. He describes the state of U.S.-Russian relations as "rather precarious."

The relatively warm U.S.-Russian ties dating to the days after 9/11 had cooled considerably, yet Cheney's comments still met with surprise on both sides of the Atlantic. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Cheney was misinformed about developments in Russia, asserting that neither the Soviet Union nor Russia "has ever broken a single contract for oil and gas supplies abroad" (RIA Novosti). Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko wrote in the Financial Times that Russian leaders are "puzzled" by Western criticism of its energy policies and said his country is committed to energy security across Europe. Nikolas Gvozdev, editor of the National Interest, questions why Washington is antagonizing Russia at a time when it can help the United States with its two most pressing foreign policy priorities: stopping Iran's nuclear program, and halting the escalating cost of energy.

Some experts see an attempt to toughen the U.S. posture ahead of the G8 summit this July in St. Petersburg. This is the first year that Russia has held the group's presidency, though the very basis of its membership has been questioned, as discussed in this new CFR Background Q&A. Cheney's comments come amid growing Western concern over Russia's reversal of economic and political reforms as well as its threat earlier this winter to turn off Ukraine's gas supply. A recent CFR Task Force report on Russia stressed the importance of maintaining the G8's credibility by not ignoring Moscow's missteps, saying it "has to be at least on informal probation at a meeting of the world's industrial democracies." But Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations dismisses talk that Cheney's remarks in Vilnius could provoke another Cold War. He told Rossiskaya Gazeta that Russia still favors close cooperation and even partial integration with the West, albeit on its own terms.

To a number of experts, the outcome of the crisis diplomacy on Iran will provide an important glimpse into Russia's geopolitical intentions. Meanwhile, others stress what Russia has to gain from better engagement with the West. Russian political scientist Yury Fedorov writes that Russia is exhibiting many of the weaknesses of a "petrostate"—an over-reliance on energy exports as well as a "lack of motivation for modernization and reform of the economy or for the development of human capital."

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