Bush could forge new direction in U.S.-Russia ties
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Relations between the United States and Russia, which experts say are now at a critical juncture, could undergo fundamental change as President-elect George W. Bush takes power in Washington.
Over the past year, he and his advisers outlined views that critics fear would turn Russia back into an enemy. But Republicans have insisted the Bush positions are more realistic and would better protect U.S. interests.
Many details of Bush's policy are left unclear.
But during the election campaign, Bush himself raised expectations for significant changes in U.S.-Russian ties, calling for nothing less than a "new strategic relationship to protect the peace of the world."
This is likely to be underpinned by Bush's stated conviction that "Russia is a great power and must always be treated as such."
But the president-elect's approach is also expected to reflect a tougher line toward Moscow on missile defenses, aid, corruption, arms control and Chechnya, as well as a greater proclivity to take on Russia when it acts against perceived U.S. interests.
Bush advisers had accused the Clinton administration for having too "romantic" a view of Russia after communism fell and the country moved toward democracy and capitalism.
"People know that policy toward Russia has failed," Bush foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters last September.
Bush may have a freer hand in dealing sternly with Moscow now that the Russian president is Vladimir Putin, who has made strides in reforming the economy but has set back the cause of democracy by weakening all major sources of power independent of the executive branch.
On missile defenses, Bush has publicly promised to "develop and deploy" national and theater systems, despite strong opposition from Russia, as well as China and NATO allies.
The Washington Post reported Dec. 10 that Bush told the Russian foreign minister directly last April that the U.S. commitment to build a missile defense system was "a political fact of life that Russia and other nations had to absorb."
The issue is certain to be a continuing flashpoint between Washington and Moscow, in addition to other capitals.
Russia fears that a national missile defense system that seeks to protect U.S. territory, would seriously undermine or erode its nuclear arsenal, which has been the basis of deterrence for the past 50 years.
But the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent report on the need to "renew" U.S.-Russia ties, said any system that the United States would be able to deploy in the next 10-15 years would not threaten Russia in that way.
Missile defense key issue
The report argued that before moving ahead with missile defense, the Bush administration should make a fresh assessment of the threat from missiles capable of hitting the United States and redouble efforts to stem proliferation.
And unless the missile proliferation threat significantly worsens (with another North Korean test, for instance) then the United States should not unilaterally defect from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which limits missiles defenses, the Carnegie experts said.
The Bush team has also signaled that the new president would end U.S. support for billions of dollars in aid to Russia from the International Monetary Fund.
Bush "does think further IMF funding doesn't make sense at this point," Rice, who is expected to be Bush's National Security Adviser, said in an interview during the campaign.
She has complained about Russia's lack of a rule of law, a senseless tax policy and rampant corruption and blamed the Clinton administration for missing an opportunity to really transform the Russian economy.
The Bush team has also declared its intention to withhold international financial assistance to Russia because of the Russian government's attacks against civilians in the breakaway province of Chechnya.
"Even as we support Russian reform, we cannot excuse Russian brutality," Bush said in his major foreign policy speech in November 1999.
Unilateral arms cuts
Bush has expressed skepticism about the process of negotiated arms deals that has been a staple feature of the U.S.-Soviet and then U.S.-Russia relationship.
But he has endorsed further reductions in nuclear weapons and has hinted he might take unilateral action, which could dramatically change the international security environment.
The United States and Russia are already committed under the START II treaty to slash their nuclear arsenals from more than 6,000 deployed weapons to 3,000-3,500 weapons by 2007.
The Carnegie report argued that Washington should unilaterally reduce its level to 1,000 to 1,5000 weapons.
Putin has suggested that Russia, which is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its nuclear arsenal because of economic problems, would take similar action.
Bush, concerned that vast amounts of Russian nuclear material cannot be accounted for, has declared his intention to press for an accurate inventory of this material and to seek expanded funding from Congress to dismantle as many of Russia's weapons as quickly as possible.
Tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship could flare over plans to expand NATO further, Moscow's transfer of conventional arms and nuclear expertise to Iran and Putin's effort this week to breathe new life into ties with Cuba.
But Moscow defused another problem this week by pardoning and freeing American Edmund Pope, who was convicted of espionage after spending eight months in jail. He denied the charges.
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