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US - Russia Ties Seen Improving - 2002-05-22

About this time last year, relations between Russia and the United States amounted to trading barbs about spying allegations and nuclear weapons. There seemed to be a canyon of differences between the two countries. But just one year later in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States, the two nations almost appear to be close allies.

It started with a telephone call.

Immediately following the September 11 attacks in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Bush to offer his condolences and help.

And there were to be more remarkable developments. In March, the United States announced it would be sending troops to the Caucasian country of Georgia bordering Russia. While many Russian politicians sputtered in rage at this perceived interference, President Putin merely said it was not a tragedy.

During his meetings in Moscow this week with President Bush, the Russian president will sign a groundbreaking agreement with the United States reducing each country's nuclear arsenal. And he is forging closer ties with NATO, something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

All of these developments are part of President Putin's new foreign policy, a foreign policy oriented toward establishing closer ties with Western Europe and the United States.

President Putin's new foreign policy has helped put an end to the Cold War relations between Russia and the United States, said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "The new agenda, ranging from the war on international terrorism and proliferation to energy partnership, is displacing the old agenda, rooted in the cold war," he said.

For years, Russia wanted to be treated as an equal to the United States, just as the Soviet Union was. Many credit Mr. Putin with accepting the reality that Russia cannot compete economically or politically with the United States. Instead, the Russian president is concentrating on cooperation.

But while Mr. Putin's policies have met with praise abroad, they have met with some criticism at home. The president is giving up too much, they say. Closer cooperation with the West is an illusion. The United States wants to take over Russia's sphere of influence. These are all criticisms heard in Moscow of the Russian President's new foreign policy.

Retired general Leonid Ivashov is one of the most vocal critics of the president's western leaning foreign policy. While agreed that Russian-American relations are entering a new stage, he said it is a stage in which Russia will be surrounded by U.S. bases on former Soviet territory and in which the United States will try to dictate Russian political and economic policy.

Mr. Ivashov is not alone in this opinion. Polls in Russia show that many people do not trust the United States. Many feel Washington is intent on following a unilateral foreign policy.

While many Russians were sympathetic and supportive of the United States immediately after the terrorist attacks, that support has waned in recent months.

Part of the problem may be unreasonable expectations. Alexei Arbatov, a member of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, said many feel that Russia has given so much and received little in return. In return for Russian support on the war against terrorism, he said, many people believed the United States would scrap plans to expand NATO or pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That did not happened, and now Mr. Arbatov says President Putin is under pressure to alter his pro-western strategy.

But Mr. Trenin from the Carnegie Center in Moscow says the likelihood of President Putin being forced to alter his policies is low. Mr. Trenin points out that while voters do not support Mr. Putin's foreign policy, they do support him - overwhelmingly so.

The Russian president enjoys popularity ratings of about 70 percent, so Mr. Trenin says it doesn't really matter whether other people in the Russian political establishment support him or not.

"Although the support for President Putin's new policy does not run very deep, it reaches very high," said Mr. Trenin. "There is no one in the administration who would dare to question, openly the presidential wisdom in pursuing what people call pro-western course."

Mr. Putin's new attitude does not, of course, mean that there are no disagreements. Russian nuclear and military cooperation with Iran or a possible U.S. campaign in Iraq will both be topics on the agenda when the two presidents meet. But President Putin's foreign policy stance certainly indicates that he is willing to work with the United States on these issues - and more.