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Assessing U.S. - Russia Ties Under Putin


Russian voters have elected Dmitri Medvedev as their new president to succeed Vladimir Putin who has held that post for eight years. He will officially relinquish the presidency in May. How have U.S. - Russia relations fared under Mr. Putin?

Most analysts agree that relations between Washington and Moscow are not good. Robert Legvold, a Russia expert at Columbia University, says they are very strained.

"They are the worse they've been since the Soviet Union collapsed [in 1991]. This is a period of immense mistrust. I've just returned from Moscow and there are several informed Russians, knowledgeable Russians, who said to me that the level of mistrust of the United States is higher than they have ever seen, even back into the Soviet period -- maybe rivaling, if not worse, the attitudes in the early 1980s, after the complete collapse of détente in U.S.-Soviet relations," says Legvold.

Russia's Rise

Experts say a major reason why relations between Washington and Moscow are strained is that outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin has reasserted his country's position as a major player on the international scene. Analysts say that when he was first elected president eight years ago, Russia was no longer a superpower capable of influencing world events. But now, experts say Russia's robust foreign policy inevitably clashes with U.S. interests.

Experts say Moscow's more assertive role on the world stage has been coupled with harsh rhetoric from Russian officials, including President Putin. For example, in February of last year at an international conference in Munich, Germany, the Russian leader strongly criticized U.S. foreign policy, accusing the United States of trying to establish itself as the dominant world power. Former U.S. National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft says he wasn't surprised by the strong words.

"To me, in part, it's typically Russian. We really have to go back to the end of the Cold War. And I think that we think it was a very smooth ending and so on and so forth. But I think we sort of overlook what must be a great sense of humiliation in the Russian soul at their fall from one of two superpowers to a country that nobody paid any attention to unless we wanted something. And I think that probably was a deep scar on the Russian psyche," says Scowcroft. "And now, after the complete [economic] collapse in 1998, Russia is now a strong power primarily because of their energy exports. And I think Putin is taking advantage of that to say, 'Look, we're not going to be pushed around anymore. We want to be paid attention to and we want to have a major seat at the table everywhere.'"

Points of Contention

A major disagreement between the United States and Russia is Washington's plans to put an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe --10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials say that kind of defense is needed against potential threats from countries such as Iran and that it is not targeted against Russia. But Moscow sees that as a direct threat and another example of the expansion eastward by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Another issue separating the two sides is Kosovo. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of the former Serbian province. Russia continues to be vehemently against recognition, saying it breaches international law. The United States and Russia also disagree on whether to impose tough sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program. Washington wants strong measures; Moscow does not. Up to now, the United Nations Security Council has passed three resolutions imposing relatively light sanctions.

Mr. Putin's Objectives

Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford University, says what Mr. Putin has done during his eight-year presidency is change Russia's overall international objectives.

"For 20 years, beginning with Mikhail Gorbachev, the overriding objective of those in the Kremlin was integration into the West. Gorbachev started it; Yeltsin accelerated it. The idea was Russia is going to rejoin Europe and rejoin the West, with all that entailed: building democracy and markets, joining Western institutions, etc. That project is now over. That is no longer the overriding strategic objective for President Putin or those around him," says McFaul. "They think Russia now is strong enough to go its own way. They don't like the conditions that one has to meet in order to join the West. And therefore, they have returned to a kind of 19th century strategy of Russian balance of power politics, playing off the West, to balance against what they call 'American hegemony'."

Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Harvard University, agrees. "The Russian people generally are a little more feisty and are going to be much more assertive. And now that Russia is financially in such good shape, they are going to be bumping around a little bit more, extending themselves into other areas where they've been absent. And that could mean colliding with American interests and with European interests too, for that matter," says Goldman.

Most analysts do not expect major changes anytime soon in U.S.-Russian relations, even with the election of Dmitri Medvedev as Russia's new president. A protégé of outgoing President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Medvedev says he will continue his predecessor's foreign policies. And Mr. Putin will still be in a position to influence matters since Mr. Medvedev promises to name him Prime Minister.

Experts say if there is going to be any change in relations between Washington and Moscow, it will have to wait until after November when American voters go to the polls to elect a new president.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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