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Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2003

Russia, U.S. Remain Divided, Despite Healing of War Rifts

By Gregory L. White

MOSCOW -- Russia and the U.S. in recent weeks have succeeded in patching up the public rifts left after the war in Iraq. But as the two presidents meet in St. Petersburg this weekend for the first time since the war, there's still little sign they will be able to get the strategic partnership, stalled by the war, back into high gear soon.

"On the rhetorical level, things have quieted down," says Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's committee on defense and a member of the liberal Yabloko party. "But [the conflict over Iraq] has done very serious damage."

The debate over the war revealed deep rifts within this country's foreign-policy leadership, leading to shifts in Russian policy over the past year that often surprised Washington. "There's a rather fierce struggle going on inside Russia," says Sergei Karaganov, a scholar and Kremlin adviser, between those advocating closer ties to the U.S. and traditionalists in the foreign and defense elite raised on decades of suspicion of the U.S.

Compounding the wounds from the Iraq debate is Russia's electoral calendar. Russian officials have already warned Washington that parliamentary elections at the end of this year mean Mr. Putin can't appear too pro-American in the coming months for fear of undermining support for pro-government parties and bolstering hardline communist factions. Helping out on the issues now high on Washington's agenda, such as curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, will be particularly hard for Moscow, which has been a longtime supporter of Iran's nuclear-power programs.

Of course, Mr. Putin ignored a great deal of domestic opposition when he lined up behind the U.S. war on terror in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, standing aside as the U.S. military moved into Russia's traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, stepping up intelligence cooperation and dropping opposition to NATO's expansion into countries once in the Soviet bloc.

That dramatic shift won Mr. Putin Washington's gratitude, which came in the form of support on a range of economic and regional issues. Particularly important to the Kremlin was Washington's help in Russia's battle with separatists in Chechnya.

But in traditional foreign-policy areas like arms control, Mr. Putin's pro-U.S. shift didn't seem to be paying dividends. For Mr. Putin and the team that supported the approach, the primary motivation was pragmatic -- Russia's deeply diminished power meant that it would get further in the world working with the U.S. rather than against it.

Mr. Putin's efforts to balance the new approach without alienating opponents within the government became increasingly difficult as the debate over war in Iraq became polarized. Fierce French and German opposition to the war left little room for Moscow to take a more moderate position without seeming softer on Washington than its traditional allies. Kremlin moderates assured Washington officials that Moscow would make sure its opposition didn't get too enthusiastic, but other factions in Russia seemed to gain the upper hand as Russia threatened to block any move to war.

Tensions boiled over as the war began, with Russian officials blasting Washington and the state media focusing prominently on civilian casualties and U.S. military setbacks.

But as the anti-American feeling in Moscow spiraled, it quickly became clear to the Kremlin that the attempt to co-opt the opposition's main issue had only strengthened the hardliners politically. Mr. Putin and his team quickly moved to calm the situation, and Russia's state media rapidly shifted their tone.

"It was a mistake on the part of the leadership to make the issue a domestic one," says Mr. Karaganov.

In recent weeks, Russia has moved to reassure Washington that it wants better relations, taking steps toward resolving a number of lower-profile but still thorny issues, like Russian restrictions on U.S. poultry exports. Moscow also has signaled it's open to cooperation on missile-defense programs, a major priority for the Bush administration.

U.S. officials say the Kremlin also seems to be moving slightly closer to Washington's alarmed view of Iran's nuclear ambitions as evidence has emerged Iran is working on weapons as well as civilian nuclear programs. But Moscow so far has taken only limited steps to put pressure on Iran, although an $800 million (EUR 673.7 million) Russian reactor project there gives the Russians leverage. Russian officials insist the reactor program has nothing to do with any weapons efforts in Iran, noting that the war in Iraq has added to Iran's sense of vulnerability.

The Kremlin also has been slow to use its leverage on North Korea, as the U.S. has sought, according to diplomats.

For his part, Mr. Putin has raised concerns about rising lawlessness in Afghanistan and the surging opium-poppy crop there, which are threats to stability in Russia. Washington, meanwhile, still has failed to deliver on promises to repeal Soviet-era trade restrictions that rankle in Moscow.

Mr. Arbatov, the legislator, says there's no chance Mr. Putin will be able to pull off another pro-American policy shift as dramatic as the one he did after Sept. 11. "If President Putin does that again, he'll sharply weaken his domestic position," he says.

U.S. officials are trying to keep expectations of Sunday's summit modest.

"Just getting the relationship back on track is message No. 1," says a senior U.S. diplomat.


See also:

Situation Around Iraq

Russia-US Relations

Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2003

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