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U.S.-Russia Relations Chilly Amid Transition

Shopkeeper Vladimir Tyshko prepares a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, for sale in Moscow.
Shopkeeper Vladimir Tyshko prepares a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, for sale in Moscow. (By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Nearly two years ago, President Bush decided to open a new era of civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia. The two governments negotiated an agreement and initialed it just days before President Vladimir Putin went fishing with Bush last summer at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

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But eight months have passed since then, and the initialed agreement remains without final signatures. A senior Russian official came here last month for what some thought would be a signing ceremony, only to have the administration pull back. Now the nuclear pact, once a symbol of closer U.S.-Russia ties, has stalled amid a quiet struggle in Washington over whether to trust Moscow.

The relationship between the United States and Russia has entered a period of suspended animation as Bush and his would-be successors try to figure out what to make of the emerging leadership structure in Moscow and how to defuse rising tension. Russians go to the polls tomorrow to ratify Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and yet Putin plans to keep power in at least some form by becoming prime minister.

Washington's estrangement from the Kremlin became evident this week as Bush and both remaining Democratic presidential candidates publicly expressed uncertainty about the would-be Russian leader. Asked to name him during a presidential debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), stumbled over the pronunciation. "Um, Med-Medvedova -- whatever," she finally said, mangling the name in a way that, in Russian, would identify the new president as a woman.

Bush the next day had the name down but, by his own admission, not much else. "I don't know much about Medvedev, either," he said at a news conference. "And what will be interesting to see is who comes to the -- who represents Russia at the G-8, for example. . . . It will help, I think, give some insight as to how Russia intends to conduct foreign policy after Vladimir Putin's presidency. And I can't answer the question yet."

The leadership transitions in both countries are playing out against a backdrop of deepening suspicion in the two capitals. Moscow fumed when Washington recognized Kosovo's independence last week and again when Bush met with the Czech Republic's prime minister to discuss stationing a U.S. missile defense system in that Eastern European country.

Russia has been extending its military reach with long-distance air and naval operations. Two Russian bombers buzzed the USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean last weekend, prompting U.S. fighter jets to intercept them; U.S. officials report eight similar incidents off Alaska since July.

The prospect that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia might join NATO someday so angered Putin recently that he threatened to target nuclear missiles at Ukraine's capital of Kiev if the country becomes part of the Western military alliance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded with unusual force, declaring that the "reprehensible rhetoric that is coming out of Moscow is unacceptable."

Bush has not given up trying to work with Russia in his final year in office. He met at the White House in January with a group of prominent U.S. and Russian figures, led by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, who are trying to bridge the divide between the two capitals. And he expects to meet with Putin next month in Bucharest, Romania, at a NATO summit, the first attended by the Russian leader in six years.

"I'm going to try to leave it so whoever my successor is will be able to have a relationship with whoever is running foreign policy in Russia. It's in the country's interest," Bush said. "That doesn't mean we have to agree all the time. I mean, obviously we didn't agree on Kosovo. There will be other areas where we don't agree. And yet it is in the interest of the country to have a relationship, leader to leader, and hopefully beyond that."

But the window for progress on Bush's watch appears to be closing. U.S. officials remain frustrated with Russia's resistance to tough new sanctions against Iran for continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. Russians remain frustrated with Bush's insistence on deploying missile defense units in Poland and the Czech Republic, with nothing coming of Putin's offer last year to collaborate on a defensive system instead.

Many Russia experts expect Medvedev, if he indeed represents Russia at the Group of Eight or other international forums after being inaugurated in May, to brush off Bush, much as a newly elected Putin brushed off Bill Clinton in the final months of that U.S. administration in 2000. Clinton later complained that he had been snubbed, and relations essentially froze until Bush first met Putin in June 2001.


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