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Mistrust in Moscow

The 'war on terrorism' isn't over, but the post 9/11 honeymoon between the U.S. and Russia is. NBC's Preston Mendenhall analyzes the latest turn in U.S.-Russian relations.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures as he speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, right, prior to their talks in Moscow, on Monday. 
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures as he speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, right, prior to their talks in Moscow, on Monday.  Sergei Ponomarev / AP
/ Source: NBC News

To gauge Russia-U.S. ties, look no further than Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Georgia, the Soviet successor state, over the weekend.

Powell, attending the inauguration of Mikheil Saakashvili, seemed to be very nearly joined at the hip with Georgia's newly elected, U.S.-educated president. While America's top diplomat appeared repeatedly in televised events next to Saakashvili, the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was lost in the crowd, if shown at all.

Saakashvili, a bear of a man at 36, is planning a future for destitute Georgia firmly based on close ties with the United States. If he succeeds, 13 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia may finally break free from the Kremlin's grasp.

The snub of Russia during the inauguration, and Powell's proximity to the man whom Georgians elected overwhelmingly Jan. 4 after he peacefully toppled the country's corrupt regime late last year, did not go down well in Moscow. The Kremlin views Georgia, part of the Caucasus region on Russia's southern flank, as its sphere of influence.

The honeymoon enjoyed by Russia-U.S. relations following 9/11 is over.

Gone are the days when Russian President Vladimir Putin endeared himself to the Bush administration by becoming the first foreign leader to send condolences after the attacks on New York and Washington.

More importantly, Putin dropped traditional Russian opposition to U.S. influence in Central Asia, where Washington set up forward bases in former Soviet republics.

But with the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan now limited to elite special forces units supported by U.S. troops based inside Afghanistan's borders, the United States has expanded its military presence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, rather than withdrawing as the direct regional threat from al-Qaida and the Taliban wanes.

On Monday, Powell's first meeting in Moscow was with his jilted Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, in Osobynak, the Russian Foreign Ministry's ornate reception house. While the visit to Moscow, tacked on the end of the inaugural ceremonies in Georgia, was designed to smooth the feathers of his Russian hosts, the secretary of state struck a blunt tone.

In an op-ed published Monday in Russia's influential Izvestia newspaper, Powell said "Certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy in recent months have given us pause."

He went on to criticize Russia's interference in the affairs of its neighbors, the war in Chechnya and Russia's wavering democratic development -- thorny topics that had all but disappeared from Russian-American diplomacy since 9/11.

Irksome issues
From its side, Russia of recent has put some pre-9/11 issues back on the front burner -- such as the expansion of NATO to include countries at Russia's front door.

Irksome, too, is Washington's shift of elements of its strategic missile defense system closer to Russia's western borders, as the U.S. military leaves behind traditional bases in "old Europe" for friendlier eastern nations.

Add to that a budding U.S. military program in Georgia, on Russia's southern border. The U.S. ambassador to Georgia announced last week that a U.S. military contingent training Georgian troops in anti-terrorism actions will become a permanent presence in the Caucasus nation.

Georgian President Saakashvili, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that two Russian bases on Georgian territory, vestiges of Moscow's influence in the region, will be closed sooner than the Russians want.

Analysts have suggested they will make good staging grounds for future U.S. military operations in the Middle East, bypassing neighboring Turkey, whose political leadership failed the United States during the Iraq war.

Powell, however, denied Monday that Washington had designs over the Russian bases.

Ivanov was full of diplomatic niceties on Monday, telling Powell that Russia is "open for close cooperation with the United States in the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the Korean settlement and other aspects because our common goal is to create a safe and secure world."

That contrasted with comments from the Russian foreign minister last month, when he accused the United States of orchestrating Saakashvili's "Rose Revolution" that ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who led Georgia for a decade.

An early supporter of Shevardnadze, Washington in the last year began to distance itself from him, as Shevardnadze fell increasingly under the influence of corrupt interest groups and regions of Georgia declared de facto independence.

Meeting with Putin on Monday, Powell, slipping back into diplomatic speak himself, acknowledged "areas of disagreement" and said that the strength of the U.S.-Russian relationship "allows us to discuss these areas with candor and openness."

When he left Georgia for Russia on Sunday, Powell announced a new aid package to Georgia, and issued an invitation from President Bush for Saakashvili to visit Washington next month.

If bluntness is the new tool of U.S. policy toward Russia, Moscow has felt its blow.