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Tense Relations at a Time of Change

Russian President Vladimir Putin has only a few months left in office and George Bush has a little more than a year left as U.S. President. What is the state of relations between the United States and Russia as both men come to the end of their terms in office?

Most analysts agree that relations between Washington and Moscow are not good. Experts say 2007 was characterized by strong rhetoric, especially on the Russian side, coupled with major disagreements on key issues.

As an example of the harsh rhetoric, analysts point to a speech given last February by President Putin 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, who served in the Gerald Ford administration and in the George H. W. Bush administration, 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. 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 collapse in 1998, Russia is now a strong power primarily because of 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.'"

Missile Defense

Analysts say a major disagreement between the United States and Russia is Washington's plan to put an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe -- ten 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 is not targeted against Russia.

Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Moscow is against such a plan because "it combines Russia's two worst security nightmares: missile defense and the expansion eastward by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization", or NATO. "So the fact that these deployments are going into countries that were former members of the Warsaw Pact, I think, is especially sensitive to the Russians. The Russians know that these system deployments don't threaten the Russian strategic deterrent in any way, shape or form. The Russians have thousands of nuclear missiles and the ten interceptors in Poland, obviously, can't address that threat. So that's not the immediate concern," says Kuchins. "I think there is always a longer term concern on the Russian part that while these deployments may not threaten us, what is the future architecture of the system going to look like 15, 20, 25 years down the road?"

Senior American and Russian officials are continuing to meet on a regular basis in an effort to find a compromise.


Another issue where the two sides are far apart is Kosovo -- a province of Serbia, mostly populated by ethnic-Albanians. Since 1999, Kosovo has been under the administration of the United Nations and NATO. The Kosovo Albanians are demanding independence from Serbia -- a move endorsed by the United States and the European Union. Serbia and Russia strongly oppose independence for Kosovo. Four months of internationally mediated talks last year ended with no agreement. And Russia has threatened to use its veto if the proposal comes up for a U.N. Security Council vote.

Former U.S. Secretary of State during George H. W. Bush's administration and former American Ambassador to Yugoslavia during Jimmy Carter's administration Lawrence Eagleburger says the dispute over Kosovo pits the principles of sovereignty and self-determination against one another. "I have really very serious problems with the international community and part of that being the United States, advocating grabbing a hunk of territory from one country and making it independent. I don't think that's a tradition that we want to establish very substantially," says Eagleburger. "There are perfectly good reasons for objecting to international efforts to hive Kosovo off from Serbia. You can argue all you want to about the difficulties between Serbs and Kosovars, but there is another issue involved here which is the international tradition of all of a sudden establishing the right of the international community to order or pressure the taking of a particular territory and telling the nominal host country that it's no longer a part of their territory."

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert at Columbia University, says the issue of sovereignty is paramount to Russia. "It [i.e., Russia] has also, from the beginning, been opposed to declarations of independence of this kind that would lead to the international community recognizing the sovereignty, because it worries about separatism within its own territory, including Chechnya. That, then, becomes complicated, though, because you've got the mixed Russian reaction to parallel cases within its own neighborhood: Abkhazia in Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, maybe southern Ossetia [in Georgia]."

Looking ahead, many experts say relations between Washington and Moscow will not change in the weeks and months ahead because both presidents are coming to the end of their terms. Russians are scheduled to elect a new president on March 2 to replace Vladimir Putin who is barred by the Russian constitution from running for a third consecutive term. And Americans go to the polls on November 4 to elect a new president to succeed George Bush who is barred by the U.S. Constitution from running for a third consecutive term.

Analysts say that in the meantime, relations between the United States and Russia will hobble along as both countries await new leaders.

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