US-Russian Rift Widens
US-Russian relations are hitting the skids. Differences over Iraq, Belarus, Georgia and other issues are prompting the two countries to engage in caustic diplomatic exchanges.
On March 28, US officials called for Russia to investigate information contained in a recent Pentagon report, which alleged that Moscow shared intelligence on American troop movements with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the early stages of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking at a Moscow news conference March 28, dismissed the Pentagon report's allegation as "absolute nonsense," Russia media outlets reported. "This came up now because it has been three years since the war in Iraq started, and I guess things are not going very well. So (someone) wants to distract the attention, to point at someone else," Ivanov said.
Iraq, however, is far from the only source of tension in the US-Russian relationship. The two countries have adopted diametrically opposed stances on the March 19 presidential election in Belarus, won by the authoritarian-minded incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging. The United States, along with the European Union, refused to recognize the vote, and imposed economic sanctions against Belarus. Russia, meanwhile, insisted that Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Moscow, won reelection in a legitimate manner.
Washington and Moscow have also clashed in recent months over the Caucasus and Central Asia. For instance, the United States is providing strong diplomatic support for Georgia in Tbilisi's intensifying feud with Russia over the continuing presence of Russian peacekeepers in the separatist South Ossetia region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Verbal sparring in connection with the March 16 release of Washington's new National Security Strategy suggests that closing the existing differences will be difficult. Underpinning the US strategy is the aggressive promotion of democratic values. "Because democracies are the most responsible members of the international system, promoting democracy is the most effective long-term measure for promoting international stability," the security strategy states.
The strategy went on to chastise Russia for backsliding on political reforms. "Strengthening our relationship will depend on the policies, foreign and domestic, that Russia adopts," it said. "Recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions."
The blueprint additionally contained a not-so-subtle message for Russia to stop buttressing authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan, and to stop obstructing nations, Georgia in particular, that are trying to accelerate democratization. "Stability and prosperity in Russia's neighborhood will help deepen our relations with Russia," the US strategy said. "That stability will remain elusive as long as this region [the Caucasus and Central Asia] is not governed by effective democracies."
On March 20, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a blistering response to the US strategy paper, saying that no single country enjoyed the right to define the meaning of democracy. "No one has, or can have, a monopoly on the interpretation of democracy," the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said. "One can contribute to the creation of democracy, but each state must follow its own path toward democracy."
Many Russian political observers contend that Washington's advocacy of democratic values rings hollow, arguing that the United States supports democratic change only when the results suit its interests. To buttress their argument, Russian experts point to the Bush administration's reluctance to engage Hamas, the militant group that won the January legislative council elections in the Palestinian territory. The United States is having a tough time adjusting to the fact that Moscow has regained a degree of geopolitical influence that it lost amid the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, some Moscow pundits add. Underscoring Russia's diplomatic resurgence, Moscow has emerged as the primary mediator in the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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