- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

An overly pleasant face is being put on U.S.-Russian relations as leaders from the Group of Eight prepare for the opening of the summit in St. Petersburg. President Bush’s use of congenial rhetoric plays down the fact that Russia has grown more incongruous, both politically and economically, with the other G-8 member states and that relations between Washington and Moscow have reached a low ebb in the post-Cold War years.

Any hopes that Russia would pursue a domestic course toward liberal democracy under President Vladimir Putin have been thoroughly dispelled. Citing his consolidation of power and the “virtual elimination” of meaningful political opposition, Freedom House changed its designation of Russia from “partly free” to “not free.” The Heritage Foundation’s 2006 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Russia lower than China and as the only member of the G-8 which falls into the “mostly unfree” category. But demanding Russia either meet the standards of a liberal democracy or leave the G-8 alliance or threatening to boycott outright the St. Petersburg summit — as Sen. John McCain, for example, urged and the Bush administration rejected — doesn’t strengthen Washington’s hand. The United States cannot precondition all cooperation with Russia on an overly optimistic picture of Russia on the road to democracy.

Russia is a world power, and, bolstered by its substantial oil wealth, it will try to fashion itself more assertively as such. This development is more pressing for the United States than the deterioration of Russian democracy. Several aspects of this foreign policy — including political recognition of and financial support for Hamas, military maneuvers with China, arms sales to Sudan and Venezuela, nuclear cooperation with Iran and opposition to U.N. Security Council action against Iran and North Korea — smack of independence with a sharp anti-American edge. This attitude, however, puts Russia in a contradictory position: By adopting a position so discordant with Washington’s, Moscow disregards the strong mutual interests that should bring the two countries together, particularly countering the threat of terrorism.

Writing in the current Foreign Affairs, Dmitri Trenin, the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that Russia’s new foreign policy, effectively a “Moscow-centered system,” makes the country “a major outside player that is neither an eternal foe nor an automatic friend.” The latter part of this conclusion should carry the greater emphasis. The United States and the European powers may be able to work with Moscow, but Mr. Putin has sufficiently demonstrated his interest in transforming Russia into a non-Western power that frequently acts in opposition to its Western alliances. In short, Washington would do well to regard Russia with neither illusion nor enmity.

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