THOUGH PRESIDENTS GEORGE W. BUSH and Vladimir V. Putin continue to express their desire to work together after sharp differences over Iraq, their governments have not yet managed to do so in a meaningful way. The two leaders seem likely to try to overcome their differences at their first meeting since the war on June x in St. Petersburg. Yet, even after that meeting, the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship will be somewhat uncertain. Before the flare up over Iraq, the United States and Russia enjoyed what some have described as their best relationship since Russian independence. Despite disagreements over the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the second round of NATO enlargement, the strong personal connection between the two presidents and new cooperation in the war on terrorism had contributed to a sense of optimism that Washington and Moscow were finally on track to becoming real partners. As a result, Russia's assertive opposition to the U.S.-British war against Saddam Hus sein came as a particular shock to many in the United States (and confirmed the suspicions of those who were not shocked) -- and the impact has only been worsened by Moscow's thus-far obstructionist postwar conduct.
Yet the relationship remains one of considerable importance to American national interests. The Kremlin's cooperation in the war in Afghanistan -- in sharing intelligence, stepping up its preexisting effort to arm the Northern Alliance, and setting aside earlier objections to a major U.S. military presence in the region -- significantly aided U.S. forces in the field. And a strong and sustainable relationship with Moscow can serve important and even vital American interests in many other areas, ranging from the war on terrorism to non-proliferation and international trade and investment. Conversely, a weak relationship with Russia could embolden "rogue states" hostile to the United States, return the United Nations Security Council to its Cold War uselessness, and expose Americans to additional danger from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
This raises two questions. What can be done to strengthen the U.S.-Russian relationship and put it on a more solid foundation? And, taking into account obvious and substantial differences with Moscow on some major international issues, how far can the relationship really go?
What went wrong?
ANY DISCUSSION OF improving the U.S.-Russian relationship should begin with an understanding of the status of the relationship today and analysis of "what went wrong" in American efforts to win Russian support for, or at least acquiescence to, the war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, even before Iraq, neither Washington nor Moscow was satisfied with the progress in the relationship. American officials frequently complained that in the absence of Kremlin involvement, Russian government departments routinely obstructed effective collaboration. Russian officials similarly grumbled that only the White House could force action from Cold War-era bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. Analysts and commentators in both countries lamented excessive reliance on the personal relationship between the two presidents.
Nevertheless, American and Russian officials continued to declare their commitment to building a strong U.S.-Russian relationship, and - despite reservations about the American use of force and concerns that Russia could face more terrorism after a war -- Moscow initially seemed inclined to accommodate the United States on Iraq, where Russian economic and other interests were significant but not first-order concerns. After their meeting in St. Petersburg in November, Presidents Bush and Putin issued a joint statement essentially reiterating the message of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 by calling on Iraq "to completely and immediately comply" with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions or "face serious consequences." Speaking to reporters, Putin expressed confidence that Russia and the United States could "achieve a positive result" so long as the process remained within the U.N. framework. As late as January zoo 3, senior officials suggested privately that Russia would be prepared to abstain i n U.N. Security Council voting if a resolution were prepared that was sufficiently vague to allow for appropriate explanation to the Russian people, who were overwhelmingly opposed to an American use of force.
By February, however, the Russian position appeared to have hardened substantially. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov repeatedly pronounced that Moscow would use its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block measures that "would open up the way, directly or indirectly, to settlement of the Iraqi problem through the use of force." Ultimately, of course, the Bush administration decided not to seek approval of yet another Security Council resolution on Iraq.
Both international and domestic forces drove the shift in the Russian position. Internationally, France (with help from Germany) made a very determined effort to seduce Moscow into opposing the United States, including intense communication with Russian leaders in advance of key Security Council deliberations. For example, in the 10 o days prior to the February 14 4 report by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin met with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov on February 5, French President Jacques Chirac spoke to President Putin on the telephone on February 6, and Putin and Ivanov traveled to Paris for talks on February 10 o. President Bush spoke to Putin on the telephone on February 4, before the French diplomatic blitz, and on February 14, by which time Ivanov was already in New York for the Security Council session.
Similarly, in the crucial 10 days before the March 7 Blix report, de Villepin and Ivanov spoke by telephone at least every other day and met in Paris on March 5 German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also spoke to Ivanov twice and participated in the Paris meeting. President Bush spoke to Putin on February 27 and late on March 6, but appeared to make little progress. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Ivanov only on the morning of March 7 and delivered a tough message that appeared to generate irritation and resentment on the Russian side rather than encourage support.
The French effort to court Moscow was especially successful because Paris made clear that it was prepared to take the lead role in opposing the United States. This strong position by an American NATO ally considerably eased Russian concerns about alienating Washington. The fact that Germany -- which also currently holds a rotating Security Council seat and, despite tension with the Schrbder government, had historically been a closer U.S. ally than France -- was similarly firm in resistance contributed to Moscow's sense that it could stand up to the United States without rupturing the bilateral relationship and isolating itself from the West.
These developments occurred at a time when Russians had begun to look toward parliamentary elections, to take place in December, and to a presidential ballot in March 2004. Though President Putin does not currently appear to have any viable challengers for reelection, his domestic agenda depends heavily upon maintaining control of the Russian parliament, particularly its more significant lower house, the State Duma. According to a poll conducted by the respected All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in late February and early March, 91 percent of the Russian public opposed the war and a considerable proportion expressed suspicion of U.S. …