- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s appointment last year was supposed to be good news for Russia: A longtime student of the former superpower, Miss Rice had publicly declared her love for the country and its culture, and even spoke its language.

Most importantly, Moscow had applauded Miss Rice’s view — expressed during the 2000 presidential campaign — that the United States should “get out” of Russian domestic affairs.

But far from enjoying warmer relations, a year later officials from both countries are openly voicing their frustrations with one another. One official described Moscow’s recent behavior as “inexplicable. Or just mad.”

The main problem, U.S. officials say, is the Russian government’s inability to realize it is no longer locked into the “zero-sum game” of the Cold War, in which anything that is good for the United States must be bad for Russia.

Moscow, they say, still believes in spheres of influence, as they existed during the five-decade-long battle between capitalism and communism.

The latest irritant was Moscow’s decision last week to cut natural-gas supplies to Ukraine over a price dispute.

“Russia doesn’t get to make its own rules in its own world any more,” said one senior State Department official. “Russia can’t take Ukraine out to a dark alley and beat it up.”

Miss Rice publicly called the action “politically motivated” and said it did not befit a responsible member — and incoming chairman — of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries.

Although Moscow and Kiev have since resolved their dispute, Miss Rice’s aides said her remarks reflected a growing frustration with Moscow.

Several U.S. officials — all of whom discussed the relationship on the condition of anonymity — said Russia seemed unsure what role it should play in international politics, making it hard to figure out who is in charge of foreign policy.

They said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has long complained of limited access to some of the most senior officials, and of official secrecy in areas that should be open and transparent in a democracy.

The embassy was unable, for example, to obtain the draft of a recent bill providing for strict controls on human rights groups and other civic organizations, even as it was being debated and voted on in parliament, another State Department official said.

A third official said Russia’s Foreign Ministry — normally the main point of contact with a foreign government — “is not where important decisions are made.” He said the Kremlin, where Mr. Putin has his offices, “is where you want to be” when an issue needs to be resolved.

Even in the Kremlin, one has to know which door to knock on, the official said. The head of Russia’s Security Council, former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, is considered much less powerful that Mr. Putin’s close adviser Sergei Prihodka.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow until last summer, tried unsuccessfully for more than two years to get a meeting with Mr. Prihodka, the official said.

A Russian official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Kremlin had probably decided that the Foreign Ministry was the appropriate level for Mr. Vershbow’s contacts.

The friction has been evident in Miss Rice’s meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which State Department officials bluntly described by as “bad.”

At a meeting in Moscow on April 20, one senior official said, Mr. Lavrov offered a list of complaints that suggested everything the United States does hurts Russia. Miss Rice finally lost patience.

Miss Rice’s “tone was, ‘Don’t waste my time with your talking points. Let’s talk about the reality of the situation,’” the official said.

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