- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

Russia's decision to release an American businessman convicted last week of spying has done little to ease misgivings over a series of provocative steps that suggest an increasingly confrontational posture from Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin made it clear over the weekend that he will pardon businessman Edmond Pope, whose sentencing Wednesday to 20 years in a Russian penal colony angered the Clinton administration and enraged many lawmakers in Congress.
But the sentencing was just one in a series of moves that suggest Mr. Putin is maneuvering to seek advantage in a number of areas while the American political elite remains transfixed by the U.S. transition drama.
"Any new U.S. administration is going to be seeking a modus vivendi with Russia," said Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen. "Mr. Putin's actions in recent days suggest he's trying to make that harder than it was before."
In recent weeks, Russia has:
Sentenced Mr. Pope for espionage, the first such conviction of an American in Russia in 40 years.
Scrapped a secret understanding with the United States to end weapons sales to Iran.
Revived the melody though not the lyrics of the old Soviet national anthem commissioned by Josef Stalin. At Mr. Putin's insistence, the Russian State Duma last week also adopted the old red military banner from Soviet times as well as the tricolor flag and the double-headed eagle coat of arms dating from the time of the czars.
Renewed its diplomatic press in Europe against a national missile defense plan strongly backed by George W. Bush, the U.S. president-elect pending legal appeals.
Announced that Mr. Putin this week will become the first Russian leader to visit Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even in the Pope case, Russian media have speculated that Mr. Putin's action is driven more by internal considerations than a desire for good relations with the United States.
Letting Mr. Pope go home could "kill several birds with one stone," the influential Moscow daily Segodnya wrote in an editorial late last week.
In this way, the newspaper said, the Federal Security Services, which have been criticized for their handling of the case, "could save face, Putin can demonstrate that he's not beholden to outside pressure and Russian scientists are given a lesson about the consequences of 'para-scientific' contacts with foreigners."
Mr. Cohen noted that Mr. Putin, while seeming to thumb his nose at Washington, has worked to improve relations with nations hostile to the United States, including Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Vietnam.
And in meetings with leaders in China, India and Western Europe, Mr. Putin regularly has attacked what he calls a "unipolar world" one dominated by the United States.
Even so, a year into the Putin era, analysts say it is hard to grasp the direction of Russia policy. A senior Russian official was quoted last week describing Mr. Putin's approach as "assertive but positive."
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described Mr. Putin's foreign policy as one of "omnidirectional friendliness," seeking aid and understanding on a wide range of fronts as he tries to rebuild a nation depleted by a decade of economic and social dislocation.
Russia's hopes of building an "iron alliance" with China and India are limited by the huge economic and military advantages enjoyed by the United States.
"Particularly with Russia and China, but also India, the United States holds a great deal of leverage simply by virtue of its position as global economic leader, and also as global military leader and senior partner in the most powerful European and Asian alliances," Mr. Kuchins said.
Advisers to Mr. Bush have spoken privately of getting off to a good start with Russia if they take power next year. Mr. Bush praised Russia's mediation role in Yugoslavia during the campaign and proposed deep cuts in U.S. nuclear missile stocks, inviting Mr. Putin to reciprocate.
The cuts would be designed to improve the tone of the dialogue as a Bush administration sought Russian acquiescence in a modification of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty to permit construction of a national missile defense shield.
Mr. Putin's government has shown little give on the ABM issue.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, in a visit to London last week, again pressed the British government not to cooperate with any such system.
But Mr. Putin has approved sharp cuts in Russian military forces at home. And while junking the agreement on Iranian arms sales, Russian officials negotiated at length with U.S. officials on the issue last week.
Russian officials also have tried to ease American concerns about Mr. Putin's three-day visit to Cuba beginning Wednesday. One of the president's top priorities will be to get Fidel Castro's government to repay Soviet-era debts, they said.

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