Russia Policy Under Review

The U.S., faced with Putin's increasingly undemocratic policies and anti-Western moves in the region, may become more assertive.

By Paul Richter

Los Angeles Times

December 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is beginning a broad review of its Russia policy that could lead to a more confrontational approach toward Moscow over its treatment of neighboring countries and its own citizens, U.S. officials said.

For the past four years, the administration muted its criticism of Russia's approach to democratic values as Washington tried to build a "strategic partnership" with Moscow to fight terrorism and weapons proliferation.

But the Bush team's approach has faced growing doubts, including from some within the administration.

Now in his second term, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has reduced press freedom and cracked down on political opponents at home while working against pro-Western forces in neighboring countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Questions about U.S. policy have gained a new urgency in the past three weeks, as the United States and Russia have sparred over the presidential election in Ukraine. Washington and the European Union rejected the results as rigged, and after public protests, the matter went to the country's Supreme Court, which overturned the victory of the candidate favored by Moscow.

The outcome appears to suggest that a more aggressive U.S. policy may aid democratic forces throughout the region.

"It is fair to say we are reassessing this relationship as we go into the new term," said a U.S. official who asked to remain unidentified.

He said a key question was whether Moscow, with its deep involvement in the Ukrainian election, had pushed the issue to a "tipping point," leading the administration to consider a more assertive approach.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sharpened his rhetoric, expressing concern about "developments in Russia … affecting freedom of the press and the rule of law."

The official, however, cautioned against predicting the outcome of the policy review, saying arguments could be made that the most effective way to promote democracy in Russia was through a close partnership that could apply "steady, constant, subtle pressure."

The current U.S. policy on Russia has had support from key officials, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to take over as secretary of State in January.

Rice, who trained as a Russia specialist, is considered the original advocate of the "realist" approach toward Moscow, which values national interests more than long-standing alliances. She was instrumental in persuading President Bush to adopt that stance early in his first term.

But several officials in Bush's inner circle argue that the U.S. should speak forcefully for democratic values in Russia and the surrounding region.

In recent months, Putin has drawn criticism for instituting sweeping measures consolidating his power, such as curtailing regional elections, restricting press freedoms and limiting individual rights. U.S. officials are also concerned that Putin is covertly reasserting Russia's influence over former Soviet republics.

Within the Bush administration, Daniel Fried, senior director for Europe and Eurasia in the National Security Council, believes that the United States should champion democratic values in the region, analysts said. Fried is considered a leading candidate for the post of assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, and his appointment could be an important signal of the new thinking on policy toward Russia, observers say.

Senior aides to Vice President Dick Cheney, such as foreign policy advisor Victoria Nuland, also favor more stringent advocacy of democratic values in the region, analysts said. It has become increasingly difficult, they said, for the White House to overlook Russia's performance on democratic rights when Bush has put spreading democracy at the top of his agenda.

Michael McFaul, an expert on Russia at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said the U.S. approach in Ukraine demonstrated a shift from official thinking at the beginning of Bush's first term.

In their handling of the Ukraine election crisis, U.S. officials acted on the view that "if you stick to your guns and provide principled words and assistance to the opposition, you can bring change," he said. "That was not at all the view you heard in these [internal] debates three years ago."

Although Bush did not begin his presidency intending to be an activist in the region, he could end up in that role, McFaul said.

"It will be interesting to see if this kind of thinking reaches in the second term to places where it didn't in the first," he said.

McFaul said the White House was forced to rethink its policy in part because Putin had gone so far in trying to reassert Moscow's influence over Ukraine.

"If Putin was a polite, quasi-autocratic ally in the war on terrorism, nobody would have any wiggle room to reevaluate the policy…. It's been his extreme policy on Ukraine that's made it difficult to keep pretending he's an ally," McFaul said.

The White House may also be rethinking its approach to Russia in part because its alliance with Moscow has been a disappointment to U.S. officials in other departments.

Russia has taken only a minor role in U.S.-led efforts to roll back North Korea's nuclear program and has continued to build a nuclear complex for Iran, despite Washington's concerns.

Moscow also has been less helpful than expected on counterterrorism efforts, and U.S. hopes for joint energy development have been set back by Russia's moves to renationalize part of its energy sector, analysts say.

"While relations between President Bush and President Vladimir Putin have been cordial, expectations of a semi-alliance have not materialized," Stephen Sestanovich, a senior U.S. envoy to the former Soviet states under President Clinton, wrote last month in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations.

An administration official said one major issue that would be considered in the policy review was whether Moscow, frustrated by what it sees as U.S. meddling in its backyard, was itself edging toward a harsher approach toward Washington. He noted that in several appearances over the last few days, Putin, apparently stung by the failure of his ally in Ukraine, had sharply criticized the United States.

Despite signs of a shift in the U.S. approach, many experts hesitate to predict that the Bush administration will adopt a bold new policy that could jeopardize ties with Russia. Moscow still has much to offer as an ally, they note, and, if alienated, can do serious damage to U.S. plans in the Middle East and elsewhere.

James M. Goldgeier, who served on the National Security Council under Clinton, said that although U.S. language had become increasingly blunt, the most forceful criticism of Russia had come from Powell.

The secretary of State has been outspoken for some time while Bush has remained mostly conciliatory, he said, noting that strong language from the president and Rice would be a more important sign of a shift.

The division of labor between Powell and Bush means that "people who want to hear strong statements can hear them," said Goldgeier, now at George Washington University. "And the Russians can console themselves, 'It's only Powell — we don't have to worry too much.' "