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U.S.-Russian relations already strained by missile defense, NATO, IMF

Spy revelations add to tensions

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has yet to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and seems in no rush to do so. As they wait, grievances on both sides multiply.

New spy revelations-- disclosures of an alleged longtime Russian mole at the FBI and a U.S.-built eavesdropping tunnel beneath the Russian Embassy -- are just the latest irritants.

''Our relations with the Russians haven't been this bad since the Cold War,'' said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a leading congressional authority on Russia.

The Bush and Putin governments have sparred over missile defense, NATO expansion, International Monetary Fund loans and dealings with Iran and Iraq.

The White House wants ''good relations with Russia, straightforward and direct,'' spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

But it has yet to announce any plans for a Bush-Putin meeting. Their first get-together may be in late July, on the sidelines of an annual summit of the largest industrial democracies in Genoa, Italy.

Weldon, just back from his 23rd visit to Moscow as head of a bipartisan panel that meets regularly with the Russian parliament, considers this a mistake.

''Bush is going to have a real challenge putting things back on track'' and should not wait until the Italy conference for a face-to-face meeting, he said. ''It should be sooner rather than later.''

Other advisers suggest the Bush national security team is purposely taking its time -- to signal an intention to put relations with Russia on a more normal footing.

For instance, Bush has no plans to name a special envoy to Russia, as former President Clinton did.

Clinton and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin forged a warm personal friendship, marked by bearhugs and backslapping in public. Few expect such behavior between the cool, pragmatic Putin and the cautious Bush.

The latest spying revelations are dramatic, but may pose little long-term damage to relations between the two nuclear powers.

''People in both countries know spying goes on all the time. We dig tunnels, they dig tunnels,'' said Keith Bush, an expert on Russia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Relations turned frosty with the U.S.-led NATO campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. More recently, Moscow condemned Bush's ordering last month of U.S. and British airstrikes in Iraq.

Russians voice particular alarm over Bush's advocacy for a multibillion-dollar national missile defense shield, considering it a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and a threat to global stability. Putin has countered with his own missile defense plan for Europe.

''The 1972 ABM treaty is like an axis to which a whole series of international security agreements is attached,'' Putin said last week. ''As soon as we pull out this axis, all of them will automatically fall apart. The whole of today's international security system will collapse.''

Other areas of contention:

n The administration's opposition to further easy-money terms for Russia. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill called efforts by the IMF and the Clinton administration to rescue Russia during the 1998 ruble crisis ''crazy.''

n Russia's sale of missile technology to Iran, North Korea and other countries. Putin's visits to Iraq, Cuba and North Korea also raised eyebrows.

n U.S. support for additional eastward expansion of NATO.

Many congressional conservatives want the three Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- eventually included in the alliance. That would infuriate the Russians, who view them as part of the former Soviet Union.

Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded ''a unique set of sensitivities'' on the Baltic states. But he told the House International Relations Committee, ''Russia will never be given a veto as to whether they come in or not come in.''

''The U.S.-Russia relationship is troubled both ways,'' said retired Rep. Lee Hamilton, a one-time chairman of that committee. Americans are frustrated by Russian's failure to more fully embrace democratic reforms, dismayed by widespread corruption and nervous about Putin, the Indiana Democrat said.

''But you could flip it around,'' said Hamilton, now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. ''The Russians are suspicious of Americans, too. They think we engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union and that we're now holding back their development.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.



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