When U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told Russian reporters in an interview Wednesday that it was increasingly risky for 15 Russian diplomats to remain in Baghdad, it may have seemed that he was stating the obvious.
The Russian Foreign Ministry saw it differently. Ignoring Vershbow's offer in the same interview of American help in evacuating diplomats -- and Russia's own warning eight days ago that its citizens should flee Baghdad -- the Foreign Ministry issued a formal protest today, accusing Vershbow of making "veiled threats" against Russian officials.
U.S. and Russian analysts say the incident is telling: Russia is eager to display its unhappiness over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in any way it can that does not permanently damage U.S.-Russian relations.
In the past week, the Kremlin protested the flight of a U.S. spy plane over Georgia, put off parliamentary action on an arms control treaty with the United States and charged that the U.S.-led war is creating instability far beyond Iraq's borders.
The United States has fired back, accusing Russia of endangering American soldiers by allowing Russian companies to sell sophisticated weaponry to Iraq despite an arms embargo and urgent pleas from Washington to halt the sales.
The diplomatic protests reflect the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations since early February, when Russia joined France and Germany in opposing a U.S.-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would have given the United Nations' stamp of approval for an attack on Iraq.
U.S. officials suggest the chill is temporary -- that President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin want to preserve and even enhance the partnership they established 18 months ago. "The watchword is damage limitation," said one senior U.S. diplomat on Wednesday. "We hope we can contain this disagreement."
But others worry that the sour turn will have more lasting impact, especially if the rift over Iraq is followed by new clashes over how to deal with Iran and North Korea. "The partnership has not fallen apart yet," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies, a research organization here. "But it is very fragile and may fall apart if the situation develops in a negative way."
Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, said he thinks that much of what Putin has accomplished by his pro-Washington foreign policy has been sacrificed over Iraq. He said he sees a possible "cooling of relations . . . which deprives Russia of serious help in the matter of domestic modernization and deprives the United States of a serious potential partner" in a part of the world where it needs support.
So far, any losses are intangible. Although the Kremlin withdrew the strategic arms treaty from consideration this week, saying it wanted to focus on stopping the war, few doubt that the Russian parliament will eventually approve the accord. The treaty, which requires both sides to cut their stockpiles of nuclear weapons by roughly two-thirds, helps Russia more than the United States because Russia lacks the money to maintain its arsenal.
A senior U.S. diplomat said the issue of Russian arms sales to Iraq is also receding because the U.S. military managed to destroy six electronic-jamming systems in Iraq that were the biggest concern.
But if the United States and Russia managed to skate around those trouble spots, it was only after days of harsh public exchanges. Bush called Putin Monday to complain that Russia had not tracked down and blocked arms sales to Iraq, despite what U.S. officials called a virtual road map from Washington. A Kremlin spokesman said Putin denied that any illegal arms transfers took place and warned Bush that groundless accusations could damage relations.
While Putin and Bush personally remain on mostly friendly terms, U.S. and Russian officials agree, Putin has given Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov free rein to play bad cop against the Bush administration.
A week ago, the Foreign Ministry complained about the flight of a U.S. spy plane near Russia's border, saying Russia does not accept the U.S. explanation that the pilot was searching for al Qaeda followers in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, Russian news media reported.
Since the war began, Ivanov has criticized the United States almost daily, arguing that the conflict is destroying Iraq and exposing the falsity of U.S. claims that its military would free the Iraqi people. "Iraq does not need a democracy which is carried on the wings of a cruise missile," he said this week.
But Kremlin insiders say Putin is weighing more than domestic polls at this juncture. For the Kremlin, they say, the Iraq war has brought to the fore troubling questions about whether the United States wants Russia as its partner or its lackey, and whether it offers in exchange concrete support or simply "empty air," as one Russian journalist put it.
Those questions will not go away if the United States wins the war in Iraq, analysts here point out. They are likely, instead, to sharpen as discussions open over the status of a postwar Iraq and what to do about other countries -- notably Iran and North Korea, which Bush has labeled, along with Iraq, as an "axis of evil."
"Five years from now, there will be more Iraqs," said Sergei Karaganov, who heads the privately funded Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and who has close ties to the Kremlin. "We have to establish some rules of behavior."
In Russia's current mood, anything that smacks of acquiescence to the U.S.-led war seems almost "obscene," Karaganov said. Russia's touchstone in any upcoming negotiations over a postwar Iraq will be Russia's own interests, he said.
"This time, we don't want to make our partner's situation easier," he said.