- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s often acrimonious rhetoric toward the United States attracted much attention after a February security conference in Munich, where Mr. Putin, after rewriting his speech himself, claimed that the United States had “overstepped its national borders in every way.” Earlier this month, Mr. Putin seemed to compare the United States to the Third Reich. As vitriolic as this is, it does not constitute a sea change in the Russian president’s rhetoric. For several years, Mr. Putin has been indicating his displeasure with the United States; this year he has started dropping the coded language in which he usually couched his criticism.

On the surface, Mr. Putin’s criticism at the Munich conference was prompted by U.S. plans to station troops in Bulgaria and Romania and to put missile interceptor systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Mr. Putin’s opprobrium, so evidently without merit — Russian officials acknowledge that the missile interceptors are insufficient to deter Russia — reflected a greater issue: Russian mistrust. Russia is no longer willing to accept informal U.S. assurance, even those from the president or secretary of state, said Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest. The missile interceptors were seen as a foothold from which the United States would increase its presence.

Russia also feels inadequately consulted in situations where the United States expects cooperation. The more Russia returns to power, the more willing Mr. Putin is to let his frustrations boil over, as he did at the Munich conference.

Mr. Putin’s decision to no longer filter his rhetorical critiques of the United States was also made for the benefit of a domestic audience, as well as reflecting his actual frustration with the United States. The more caustic of Mr. Putin’s rhetoric may well be for domestic consumption.

Upcoming elections in both countries contribute to rising tensions in other ways, as well. Under Mr. Putin, a supplicant Russia burdened by foreign debt has risen again to a power on the world stage. But Russian politics is a managed system, its economy commodity-based, dependent on its oil and natural gas resources. Neither is a recipe for stability. Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute argues that concerns over the transition of leadership, which in Russia has historically not gone as planned, is causing the increasing tension in U.S.-Russian relations.

U.S. influence in Russia’s domestic affairs is limited, and it is pointless to try to force U.S.-style democracy on a country that from the bottom up and from the top down does not yearn for such a thing. The United States needs to move beyond its disappointment at losing Russian friendship — if that’s what it was — and get about the business of finding common purpose. Positive steps toward a working relationship start with the mutual concern with terrorism. Information sharing, which began to happen in the wake of September 11, should begin again, and the United States could also begin regular joint military counterterrorism exercises with Russian forces in order to translate that mutual concern from theory into practice.

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