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Moscow Times
November 15, 2004
The Cooling Trend Will Continue
By Andrew C. Kuchins

President Vladimir Putin has enthusiastically welcomed the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush, as has much of Moscow's political elite. Putin has made clear that he believes that the decision of the U.S. electorate to return Bush for another four years represents a decisive rebuke to international terrorists. The driving assumption behind the Russian political elite's preference for an encore performance by the Bush administration, assuming their views are not simply a Kremlin echo chamber, holds that Republicans form their foreign policy goals on the basis of national interests rather than values and are consequently less likely to be critical of Russian domestic affairs.

Let's first look at the terrorism issue more closely. There is little question that at least rhetorically Putin and Bush share a similarly visceral hatred of international terrorists. Their feelings are understandable, given that Russia and the United States have suffered the most debilitating terrorist attacks on their watch. They view the terrorist challenge through the same prism as a showdown between good and evil that can tolerate neither compromise nor shades of gray. This mindset, and the perception of a shared enemy in al-Qaida and the Taliban, drove Putin to unprecedented historical cooperation during the war in Afghanistan.

Since then, Moscow and Washington have disagreed on Iraq, and the notion of a strategic partnership to fight terrorism rings more hollow. In fact, one wonders whether Moscow and Washington view each other more as a liability than an asset in efforts to combat Islamic-inspired terrorism. Most Russians viewed the war in Iraq as a strategic mistake that would further destabilize the Middle East and serve as a great recruiting cause for al-Qaida. Likewise, both Republicans and Democrats in Washington broadly agree that the Kremlin's brutal war and failed policies in Chechnya have increased the terrorist threat to Russia. The series of terrorist attacks over the summer, culminating in Beslan, force Washington to ask whether Russia may be the weak link in the so-called "war on terror."

Each country has an overflowing plate of problems in Iraq and Chechnya. It is unrealistic for the United States to expect significant -- if any -- assistance from Russia in Iraq. It appears unlikely that Russia would welcome assistance from the United States or other countries in Chechnya. Putin may genuinely want the United States to be successful in Iraq; the Bush administration certainly does not want Chechnya to remain a haven for terrorists. But to expect that the U.S.-Russian relationship will grow in importance in each capital on an anti-terror basis does not appear very promising at present.

Let's take a look at the Russian political elite's second assumption about the realistic and pragmatic bent of Republicans as opposed to the supposedly moralizing and idealistic Democrats. The reality is more complicated. There are pragmatic and idealistic wings in each party. Republican neo-conservatives share with many Democrats an almost ideological optimism about the primacy of democracy and the U.S. capacity to promote it abroad. They are united in their critique of growing authoritarian rule in Russia and its potentially dangerous implications for European security. While Russian commentators have been quick to point to the high number of former Clinton administration officials who signed the "letter of 112" to NATO and the European Union criticizing Putin's domestic and foreign policies earlier this fall, one should not forget that the signatories also included a number of leading Republican figures, including Senator John McCain. The initiative for the letter came from both parties, and earlier this year McCain along with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman introduced a bipartisan initiative to consider expelling Russia from the G8.

The degree to which the second Bush administration will be critical of domestic developments in Russia as well as its foreign policy will depend on two factors, first and foremost -- developments in Russia itself. If Russia moves further in an authoritarian direction, and this is combined with more domineering policy in the former Soviet republics, a cooling in U.S.-Russian relations is inevitable.

The second factor is what importance the Bush administration places on partnership with Russia in the coming years. Recall that on the campaign trail in 2000, and initially as president, Bush was very critical of Russia. But six months into his first term Bush's desire to move on missile defense and NATO expansion inspired him to do some soul-searching, and Russia climbed up the priority list. Then the need to fight a war in Afghanistan after 9/11 made Russia all the more important for Washington, and we heard very few critical comments about Russian domestic affairs.

Dealing with the Iranian nuclear program may be the key issue that will require Russian help during Bush's second term -- that is, if a cooperative diplomatic rather than a military solution prevails. But here Russia will be one of several key players, and for now the Europeans are taking the lead. Once the Yukos issue is finally resolved, the U.S.-Russian energy partnership may regain lost momentum. Something quite unpredictable could drastically change calculations about Russia in Washington, but most likely Russia will remain a secondary priority at best for the Bush administration, whose primary goals are stabilizing Iraq, strengthening the falling dollar, and promoting an ambitious domestic socio-economic agenda. The less Bush may want from his friend Vladimir, the less constraints his administration will feel about critically assessing Russian domestic and foreign policies. Under these circumstances, don't expect a change in the cooling trend in U.S.-Russian relations anytime soon.