| MOSCOW -- The rift between Russia and the U.S. over
the war in Iraq has exposed the weak foundation underlying a much-ballyhooed
friendship between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.
And U.S.-Russian relations could come under greater strain if
Washington pushes ahead to challenge its other "axis of evil"
foes, Iran and North Korea, with whom Russia shares longstanding
political and economic ties.
If the U.S. attempts to deal with either Iran or North Korea
in a way that angers the Kremlin, then "Russia will hardly
exercise restraint, including in its supplies of technologies,"
says Sergei Rogov, head of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow.
"If America decides to repeat the Iraqi precedent, the fragile
Russian-American partnership will fall apart for good."
Before the war in Iraq, the Kremlin and Washington alike touted
the "special relationship" between Presidents Bush and
Putin that could pave over post-Cold War tensions, and the two
heads of state appeared to hit it off on Mr. Bush's Texas ranch.
Although they disagreed over the expansion of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization and the U.S. abandonment of the antiballistic-missile
treaty, the two leaders agreed there was an overarching need for
the nuclear powers to cooperate. The Russian president was the
first world leader to offer his condolences to the White House
after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and supported the U.S.-led
invasion of Afghanistan.
But this civility is starting to crack under the weight of old
suspicions. Last week, as Washington protested alleged Russian
arms sales to Baghdad, the rhetorical disharmony hit a peak. Moscow
called the accusations unfounded "war propaganda" and
protested spy-plane flights near Russia's southern border.
The U.S. has been further irked by Mr. Putin's strong and public
opposition to war. Last week, he called the conflict the most
serious crisis since the end of the Cold War, warning that it
threatened "the foundations of global stability and international
Analysts see the public sparring as a sign that the U.S.-Russian
friendship is shallower than advertised.
"When countries say they have a partnership, it implies
they can manage problems on the middle or high levels of government
-- the head of the National Security Council calls his counterpart
in Moscow and they discuss things," says Andrei Safranchuk,
head of the Center for Defense Information in Moscow. "This
past week we saw that this wonderful partnership does not work."
Washington and Moscow say they are trying to contain the dispute,
but if it continues to seethe, the rhetoric could complicate cooperation
on issues that both sides care about, such as arms control and
Part of the problem, analysts say, is that the rank-and-file
bureaucrats in Washington and Moscow haven't changed markedly
since the days of the Cold War. Much of the Bush team dates back
to the Reagan era, when Russia itself was called the center of
an evil empire. Most of Mr. Putin's top advisers in the Foreign
Ministry and the military are also holdovers from Soviet days,
and are suspicious of U.S. intentions.
Washington's accusations last week that Moscow had sold sensitive
military equipment to Iraq were a clear sign of the breakdown
in communication. The U.S. said it had tried since last summer
to halt Russia's sales of antitank guided missiles, global-positioning-system
jamming devices and night-vision goggles to Iraq, fearing they
could pose a danger to U.S. troops. But warnings were ignored
in Moscow, U.S. diplomats said.
"They do not want this to be an irritant in our relationship.
And they are hard at work on it. And I hope they will find out
what we know to be the case, and deal with it," Secretary
of State Colin Powell told a congressional committee last week.
The White House was fairly confident it could win Moscow's tacit
acceptance of war by promising that Russia's economic interests
would be honored in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But economics
didn't bother Mr. Putin nearly as much as the precedent of the
U.S. unilaterally overthrowing a regime.
There is tension on other fronts, too, including Iran and North
Korea. Washington has protested Russia's sale of civil nuclear
technologies to Tehran, saying the materials and know-how could
be used to build bombs.
Both presidents now face a choice: abandoning partnership in
a huff or redoubling efforts to find common ground. Doing the
latter in the current political climate will be tough. The American
public is casting a suspicious eye on what it sees as fair-weather
allies who oppose the war. Russians, meanwhile, have grown increasingly
wary of American might. In an opinion poll of 1,600 Russians last
week, 55% said they view the U.S. negatively, compared with 15%
polled last summer.
Even during the Cold War, when Moscow and Washington hated each
other, "ordinary people really liked Americans," says
a liberal legislator and deputy chairman of the defense committee
in the lower house of Parliament. "Now, the sincere feeling
on the street ... is taking on a bright anti-American character."
Michael Schroeder contributed to this article.
HISTORY OF A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
- June 2001: Putin and Bush meet for the first time; Bush declares
- September 2001: Putin is the first world leader to call Bush
after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to offer his condolences and
pledge support in the fight against terror.
- November 2001: Bush entertains Putin at his Texas ranch, where
they agree to reduce nuclear arsenals.
- February 2002: Putin calls U.S.-Russian cooperation important
for world stability, but he warns Washington against attacking
- May 2002: The two leaders sign a nuclear-arms reduction pact
and pledge to cooperate on energy issues. But Bush team criticizes
Russian nuclear aid to Iran.
- November 2002: Russia supports U.N. resolution on sending
weapons inspectors to Iraq. But Putin warns Bush not to lose
focus on the war against al Qaeda terrorists.
- February 2003: Putin declares that Russia stands with France
and Germany in favor of continued weapons inspections in Iraq
and against any U.N. resolution authorizing force against Saddam
- US Relations