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New leaders unlikely to ease U.S.-Russia strains

There is scant optimism that the changes in leadership in Moscow and Washington will shift the downward momentum in relations between the two nuclear powers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia’s new president has promised the kind of democratic change that Washington advocated during predecessor Vladimir Putin’s tenure. At the same time, all the candidates to succeed President Bush have promised a break from a foreign policy that Moscow has bitterly criticized.

Still, there is scant optimism that the changes in leadership in Moscow and Washington will shift the downward momentum in relations between the two nuclear powers.

Few Russian analysts in Washington believe that Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president hand-picked by Putin, will have the power to boost democratic rights, as he has promised. And while all three U.S. candidates pledge to work more cooperatively with other nations than Bush has, campaign rhetoric suggests none would take a more conciliatory approach to Russia after they move into the White House in January.

“All three candidates have a jaundiced view of Russia’s recent performance in terms of political freedoms, freedom of the press and civil rights,” said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It is likely that the next administration will be more critical.”

Putin to stay 'active and influential'
Skepticism in Washington follows from the belief that Putin, whom Medvedev appointed prime minister a day after his May 7 inauguration, will bring most of the power of his old post to his new one.

“Putin is not going to be a potted plant,” David Kramer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said in an interview. “He has sent signals that he is going to be active and influential.”

Randy Schoeneman, an adviser to Republican candidate John McCain, also has doubts that Medvedev will control Russia’s course.

“Senator McCain hopes to see a number of changes in Russian policy, but given what appears to be the power relationship between Medvedev and Putin, it’s unclear whether Medvedev, even if he wants to change anything, will have any ability,” Schoeneman said.

The Bush-Putin relationship began warmly. After their first meeting in June 2001, Bush famously commented that he looked into Putin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Putin’s support for the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks also boosted ties.

But those relations deteriorated with U.S. criticism that Russia was becoming more autocratic; Russian opposition to the Iraq war; sharp bilateral differences on U.S. missile defense plans in Europe; the independence of Kosovo; and separatist movements in Georgia.

Nuclear deal faces opposition
In a rare diplomatic breakthrough in recent relations, the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia this month. But that deal is facing stiff opposition from lawmakers, who argue that Russia is not doing enough to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and that now is not the time for cooperation with Putin’s Russia.

The anti-Russian — or anti-Putin — mood is also appearing in the presidential campaign. Of the three candidates, McCain has been the most outspoken critic. He has advocated expelling Russia from the Group of Eight industrial nations and made Putin the butt of a punch line. During a campaign speech in October, he joked that like Bush, he has looked into Putin’s eyes. “I saw three things: a K and a G and a B.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose prospects for beating Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination are dwindling, also has played on Bush’s line and Putin’s earlier career in the Soviet intelligence service.

“I could have told (Bush) he was a KGB agent; by definition he doesn’t have a soul,” she said in January. (That brought a rebuke from Putin, who said, “At a minimum, a head of state should have a head.”)

Obama has been more cautious. Michael McFaul, a Stanford University political science professor who is advising Obama, said Obama does not believe in isolating Russia and would cultivate cooperation, especially on reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. But he said Obama will not shy from criticism.

“President Bush seems to believe that if he treats Putin as a friend and turns the other way when it comes to these other issues, that will lead to a more cooperative relationship with Russia,” McFaul said. “The historical evidence is not there to support that strategy.”

Thorny question of missile defense
Even if the next U.S. president were looking to improve relations, the new administration may find it hard to change course on issues that have kept tensions simmering.

McCain is an ardent supporter of Bush administration plans to install a radar system in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland to defend against missiles targeting the West. While the two Democrats have expressed skepticism about costs of the proposed project, they may be bound by agreements the administration is trying to lock up with the two NATO allies.

Like Bush, all three candidates have supported the former Soviet republic Georgia’s hopes for joining NATO, which Russia opposes. Two years ago, McCain and Clinton both nominated Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili, an ardent antagonist of Moscow, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tensions over Georgia have increased in recent weeks as Russia moved toward recognizing two breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that have sought independence since separatist wars in the 1990s. Putin signaled that his move to step up ties with the territories was related to Western recognition of the Balkan province Kosovo’s independence from Serbia over Russian objections.