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Campaign 2004: The Candidates on US-Russian Relations - 2004-09-07

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently summarized relations between Russia and the United States as: 'not enemies, but not yet allies.' Many analysts agree, however, that ties between the former enemies have warmed considerably under the Bush administration. VOA's Brent Hurd reviews how a second Bush term or a new Kerry administration might affect relations with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to call President Bush and offer his deepest sympathies after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He pledged Russia's unparalleled support and cooperation. In that instant, Mr. Putin largely cast away the lingering post-Cold War distrust for a new focused mutual concern: the war on terror.

Three years later, that focus remains strong. During meetings with Mr. Putin at the presidential retreat Camp David, President Bush discussed the war on terrorism and the risk posed by Iran: "What's important is that we understand it is in our national interest that Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon. So the most important thing that came out of these meetings was a re-affirmation of our desire to work together to convince Iran to abandon [nuclear] ambitions, as well as to work with other nations so that there is a common voice. You heard the president [Putin] say that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] process must go forward. We firmly agree."

The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about an Iranian nuclear power plant built with Russian technology. US officials suspect that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its intentions are peaceful and has announced it will not open the plant until 2006.

James Goldgeier, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Iranian nuclear question is key for US-Russian relations: "The biggest issue in that relationship is probably that of Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Either under a Kerry or Bush administration, the United States is going to be confronted very early on with Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons, and there the United States is going to want Russian cooperation. That has been very difficult to achieve, and I think either administration is going to have problems with that."

The US administration is warning Iran against pursuing a nuclear weapons program, which it calls a threat to international security. In a recent speech, Democratic Party vice presidential candidate John Edwards mentioned another issue that analysts say any president will have to address: "We can build an aggressive defense by working with the world to meet our greatest threat: terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. We know that our enemies want these weapons, especially the nuclear bomb. And we know that much of the bomb making material is not secure,especially in Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. Terrorists can get these weapons. We cannot wait any longer to secure them. At this [Bush] administration's pace, it will take at least 13 more years to secure these weapons. This is too long."

Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry says preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons will be his number-one security goal if he is elected. Charles King of Georgetown University agrees the Democratic Party has a good record of securing loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union: "One of the great products of the Clinton years in the White House was a strong cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation. All of that has sort of gone by the wayside under the Bush administration. And it may well be that this is the kind of program that John Kerry's advisers would say is essential to fight the war on terror." Mr. King says differences between President Bush and rival John Kerry are a matter of accent, not of fundamental policy changes.

Nikolai Zlobin, a scholar at the Center for Defense Information here in Washington, cites some differences: "Currently, Bush is always on Russia's side. He is maybe the most pro-Russian American president in US history, at least in the 20th century. He likes Putin and supports him. But this is very much based on personal, subjective reasons or current needs of the US political establishment. I think for a possible Kerry administration, it is much more important to be about democratic values, rather than how much Russia can help in fighting al-Qaeda. Kerry would take a much more serious step and tone talking to Russia about human rights, media and rule of law."

But Charles King says the recent concerted terrorist campaign in Russia makes it difficult for the United States to talk about Russia's eroding democratic freedoms: "In a context in which Russians themselves are dying, that is, as victims of terrorist attacks -- the downing of two planes, the metro bombings and most recently the takeover of the school in North Ossetia -- I think it is going to be very difficult for the United States to harp on the human rights question when in fact it is the human rights of Russians that seem to be violated in the most egregious way."

Mr. King adds that Russian President Putin's great popularity with the Russian people makes it harder for US officials to influence Russian domestic policy, no matter who wins the US presidential election in November.