Task Force Urges Bush To Be Tougher With Russia

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

The Bush administration should stop pretending Russia is a genuine strategic partner and adopt a new policy of "selective cooperation" and "selective opposition" to the authoritarian government of President Vladimir Putin, a bipartisan task force has concluded.

In a grim assessment of the recent "downward trajectory" under Putin, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that in Russia democracy is in retreat, corruption on the rise and the Kremlin an increasing obstacle to U.S. interests. The goodwill that developed between President Bush and Putin, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has eroded.

"U.S.-Russian relations are clearly headed in the wrong direction," the task force wrote. "Contention is crowding out consensus. The very idea of 'strategic partnership' no longer seems realistic."

Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who co-chaired the task force along with Republican former housing secretary Jack Kemp, said the administration has shied away from addressing Putin's behavior. "What they've done is focused on the positive things Russia is doing and been soft on the problems," he said in an interview, adding, "We need for the world to see what's happening inside, and at a minimum Putin needs to feel the pressure from that."

The report crystallizes a growing reassessment of Russia in Washington five years after Bush first met Putin and looked into his soul, as the president put it at the time. Rather than champion democracy and Western values, the former KGB colonel has moved to reassert control over Russian society and eliminate opposition.

Administration officials have been disturbed by other actions in recent months, including Russian maneuvering to force U.S. troops out of Central Asia, Moscow's use of energy exports as a weapon against smaller neighbors, and Putin's outreach to Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that just won parliamentary elections.

At the same time, Moscow has moved closer to Washington in the effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Once considered a virtual accessory to Tehran's alleged nuclear arms program, Russia lately has turned around and collaborated with the Bush administration to pressure the Islamic state to renounce any such ambitions, although the Kremlin still resists sanctions.

Uncertainty about Russia has touched off a debate within the Bush administration between those who favor a harder line and those who advocate a constructive relationship. Vice President Cheney, seen in the first camp, recently summoned Russia scholars to brief him and asked national intelligence director John D. Negroponte to report back with more information about Putin. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tried to balance concerns about Putin with a pragmatic belief that he can still be an important partner.

The concern has been exacerbated by the fact that Russia will host this year's Group of Eight (G-8) summit, a situation that has called into question whether Russia even belongs in the club of the world's leading industrial democracies. Some critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have called for boycotting the St. Petersburg summit.

The new report could fuel the debate. The task force included Russia scholars such as Stephen Sestanovich, Strobe Talbott, Michael McFaul, Clifford Kupchan, Fiona Hill and Coit D. Blacker. But Walter B. Slocombe, who worked for Clinton and Bush, filed a dissenting statement joined by former Bush aides Robert D. Blackwill and Dov S. Zakheim saying "the United States should accept that its main interests are not Russia's internal arrangements" and "should cold-bloodedly realize that we have real differences and conflicts, but that we can cooperate when we have de facto shared goals."

Kemp and Edwards plan to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" today to discuss their findings. The report highlights Russia's spectacular economic recovery since the meltdown of the 1990s but focuses on the deterioration of democratic institutions under assault from Putin's Kremlin: "As a result, Russia is left only with the trappings of democratic rule -- their form, but not their content."

The task force rejected calls to kick Russia out of the G-8 but says it was "a much closer call than we expected." Instead, it suggested that Russia ought to be "at least on informal probation," and recommended a "de facto revival" of the G-7 that existed before Russia joined in the 1990s to play "a guiding and coordinating force within the group."

In outlining its prescription of "selective cooperation" and "selective opposition," the task force said the Bush administration should continue working with Moscow on decommissioning Russian nuclear weapons, and should forge an agreement on civil nuclear energy while also pressing the Kremlin to reverse its internal crackdown and external pressure tactics. The United States, it said, should accelerate NATO membership for Russian neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia and should increase aid to democracy groups, rather than cut it, as Bush has done.

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