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U.S.-Russia Relations Cool


The recent poisoning death in London of former K.G.B. agent Alexander Litvinenko has sent a chill in relations between Moscow and the West.

Many western experts on Russia say the personal rapport between President George Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has been a key factor in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Relations Cool

However Robert Legvold, a Russia expert with Columbia University, says the relationship is not as warm as it was in June 2001, when Mr. Bush met Mr. Putin for the first time and said: "I looked the man in the eye . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul."

"I don't think it is at all what was built between the initial meeting in 2001 in Slovenia -- Crawford, Texas -- the Moscow 2002 summit and the other meetings that they've had, maybe even some of them after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But I think gradually, especially since March 2003, the relationship remains cordial. And I think the two men have a certain level of trust. I don't think it's quite as deep as either of them would have liked to have had or thought they were going to have," says Legvold.

Michael McFaul, a Russia expert with Stanford University, agrees that the relationship between the two men has cooled.

"Bush and his team, they're disappointed with the way that Putin has moved. They miscalculated," says McFaul. "They thought they had a better ally in Putin than he has turned out to be and I think they are really surprised by the extent to which he has moved against democracy."

McFaul and others say since the Slovenia 2001 meeting, Mr. Putin's anti-democratic moves have included centralizing power in the presidency, weakening the strength of independent political parties and reining in the national media. Just this past year, experts say President Putin tightened electoral laws in favor of government-controlled parties in advance of parliamentary elections next year and presidential balloting in 2008.

Who Murdered Litvienko?

But analysts say one incident above all others has sent a chill in relations between Moscow, Washington and the West in general -- that is the death of former KGB officer and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko. He died November 23 in London of radiation poisoning attributed to polonium 210. On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of being involved in his murder -- a charge Mr. Putin, himself a former K.G.B. agent, has denied.

Peter Reddaway, who has been writing for decades on Russia and the Soviet Union, says there is growing suspicion that the poison came from Russia.

"It's not clear exactly who ordered the poisoning, but there is a lot of suspicion that it's either Putin or people close to him in the Kremlin. That, coming on top of the murder in Moscow of a very courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was an American citizen [She was born in New York] as well as a Russian citizen, has contributed to the growing suspicion and the growing dislike, if you like, of Mr. Putin and his government on the part of the American administration who find it increasingly difficult to feel a sense of trust with the Russian administration," says Reddaway. "And indeed, if you study the Russian media as I do, you see that there is a very high level of hostility in the Russian establishment -- much more in the Russian establishment than there is in the Russian people -- toward the United States and the West."

For his part, Marshall Goldman of Harvard University, says Litvinenko's death is a public relations disaster for Russia.

"I, personally would be surprised -- not to say that it couldn't happen -- I would be surprised if Putin's finger pushed the button and [he] said, 'Go ahead and kill Litvinenko.' But I think what he does have to expect, is that people would say, 'Look, you've brought in all these former K.G.B. agents into the government, into the administration, into places of power.' They automatically interpret this to say, 'Look, we are in control, we can make our own decisions,'" says Goldman.

Key Issues

Analysts point to other areas of friction between Washington and Moscow. Mike McFaul from Stanford University says Iran's desire to acquire nuclear weapons is at the top of the list.

"The Russians have a lot of economic interests with Iran and including in nuclear energy. And they think that the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons can be managed. And the Americans believe that we are doing a bad job of managing it -- we need a more coercive strategy and they see the Russians as not going along with that," says McFaul.

Other areas of concern include Russia's nuclear arsenal and whether it is secure enough to avoid so-called "loose nukes" falling into the hands of terrorists.

Looking ahead, experts -- such as Robert Legvold from Columbia University - - do not believe there will be any improvement in U.S./Russian relations, especially since both presidents are coming to the end of their terms and will leave office after elections in 2008.

"Between now and the 2008 election, I don't expect major changes in U.S./Russia relations. I think they are going to stagger along in their present condition. It could be that things would get a little bit worse, especially if they're buffeted by events that bring out tension between the two sides, if something goes very wrong in the case of Iran, for example. Nor would I expect the other way, that there would be a substantial improvement or turnaround," says Legvold.

Experts say Mr. Bush is in a lot weaker position to influence policy now that the Democratic Party will control both houses of the U.S. Congress. As for Mr. Putin, he has no such problem because both chambers of the Russian parliament are dominated by members of his political bloc.

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