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Examining U.S. - Russia Relations

Leaders of the world's major industrialized democracies and Russia, known as the G-8, are scheduled to meet next month in St. Petersburg.

Five years ago [June 2001], President George Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met in Slovenia for their first face-to-face talks. It was a get-acquainted session, and, at the end of the meeting, Mr. Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him straightforward and trustworthy. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul." For his part, the Russian leader said he viewed the United States as a partner.

Experts say the rapport established between the two men at that summit has been a key factor in Russian-American relations. But many analysts, including Robert Legvold from Columbia University [in New York], say that relationship has changed.

"I don't think it has the same solidity that it had in the period after the summer of 2001, particularly after September 11, 2001," says Legvold. "But I think both leaders continue to have a basic level of trust in one another and I think both leaders want to put the best face they can on a relationship where people around them, on both sides, are increasingly critical of the other's behavior. It doesn't have quite the same emotion, or the same depth it did earlier."

Putin's Presidency

Since that first meeting, experts say President Putin has taken a number of anti-democratic steps. He has centralized power in the presidency, weakened the strength of independent political parties and reined in the national media. And in January of this year, Moscow briefly turned off its natural gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute -- a move that disrupted deliveries to Europe and brought international condemnation.

Marshall Goldman, an expert on Russia at Harvard University, says relations have soured because of increasingly divergent interests.

"The Russians are beginning to flex their muscles now that they have come to realize they have energy that other countries want, including the United States, and this gives them much more backbone," says Goldman. "And they are resentful of the way the United States has been developing relations with countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union: Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, the Baltic States -- and the fact that NATO seems to be moving right into their back door, possibly even to Ukraine. So they are upset about that. They are upset about what we are doing in Iraq. And we're upset because they are not helping us the way we think they should be helping us in Iran or in North Korea."

A Tougher U.S. Stance

Goldman says that the U.S. is upset about internal developments within Russia. Many experts have said because of the close relationship between the two leaders, President Bush and members of his administration have been reluctant to strongly criticize President Putin in a public forum. But analysts say that changed last month in Lithuania, when Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a sharp speech accusing Russia of backsliding on democracy and using oil and gas -- in Mr. Cheney's words -- "as tools of intimidation and blackmail" against neighboring countries.

Robert Legvold from Columbia University says officials in the Vice President's office and in the defense department have always been more critical of what is happening inside Russia. He says Mr. Cheney simply brought it to the public's attention using sharp language.

"What's not clear is why he chose the venue and the timing for the speech and whether that represents the policy. Because the reason the Russians were especially sensitive to the speech, I think, had less to do with its content than it had to do with the fact that it was delivered in Vilnius, among a set of states from the Baltic to the Black Sea that are critics of Russia and therefore, I think the Russians read into the speech more than merely the criticism of domestic development -- particularly when it was combined with his second point, not just backsliding on democracy, but blackmailing on energy," says Legvold.

Russian officials reacted strongly to the speech, with a Kremlin spokesman calling the remarks "incomprehensible." Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted as saying the address represented interference in Russia's internal affairs.

Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Mr. Cheney went one step further.

"What really irritated the Russians, of course, along with this criticism which they rightly or wrongly think is unfair, is that Mr. Cheney then got on a plane and went to Kazakhstan and met with the Kazakh president, Mr. [Nursultan] Nazarbayev, who is certainly no more democratic than Mr. Putin -- and there was really no mention made of the demerits of Kazakh democracy and human rights and oppression, etc," says Kuchins.

How to Influence Russia?

Kuchins wonders whether Washington can ultimately pressure Moscow to bring about democratic changes. "The problem is that we don't really have very much leverage over what the Russians do domestically. The Russian economy has been growing for seven or eight years now, principally thanks to high oil prices, " says Kuchins. "The Russians are not dependent on loans from the I.M.F. [i.e., International Monetary Fund] and international financial assistance as they were in the 1990s. So to what extent that leverage was useful for us in the 1990s, we certainly don't have it today."

Next month, leaders of the world's major industrialized democracies and Russia -- known as the G-8 -- will meet in St. Petersburg. Kuchins and other experts will closely monitor the summit to see if Washington will continue to criticize Moscow with harsh rhetoric -- or whether U.S. officials will take a more conciliatory tone toward the host nation.

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