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U.S., Russia descend into mutual mistrust
San Francisco Chronicle


July 22, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Growing disputes between the United States and Russia are threatening to significantly chill the once-warm relations between the two countries. They also may seriously undercut a major front in the U.S. war on terrorism.

The new fault lines lie in the rugged terrain of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, two former Soviet republics in Central Asia that the Pentagon has been using as launching pads for military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.

This month, the Kremlin - backed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an Asian alliance presided over by Russia and China - said the United States should set a pullout date from the Central Asian bases, where 2,000 American troops have been stationed for nearly four years.

Russia's demand angered the Bush administration, which does not want to lose its toehold in a region it considers pivotal to its anti-terrorism efforts and crucial to maintaining a presence close to its Cold War-era archenemy.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Russia and China of "bullying" Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan into cutting off access to U.S. troops. And Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, rejected any timetable for a withdrawal last week, saying that the U.S. military operates based on "circumstances" and not "dates."

Russia responded to Myers' comments by saying, in a Foreign Ministry statement, that it is "bewildered by the comments" of the top U.S. general.

In a further sign of estrangement, Russia announced plans to conduct its first joint military exercises with China - a hint to the United States that Russia has "other geopolitical options," said Anatol Lieven, an expert on Russia and U.S. foreign policy at the New America think tank in Washington.

Early in his first term, President Bush said he had developed a special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he called "my friend. " And as recently as 2003, Bush called Russia "a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive."

But "both sides see the other differently now," said Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington. Bush has grown more suspicious of Putin, McFaul said, mainly because of "democratic backsliding" in Russia, "which cuts against the grain of (Bush's) liberty doctrine," and also because "the Russians are not delivering much on other aspects of the relationship."

After Sept. 11, 2001, Russia positioned itself as a major ally of the United States, supporting the war in Afghanistan and even, according to some reports, sharing military intelligence with Washington. In return, the Bush administration muted its criticism of the war in Chechnya and declining political freedoms in Russia.

But as military operations in Afghanistan wound down after the initial assault and the United States began preparing for the war in Iraq, which Russia opposed, the mutual good will began to wane. The clash over the American military presence in Central Asia came after a string of setbacks in U.S.-Russian relations, including actions by the Kremlin to quash opposition voices, alleged human-rights abuses in Chechnya, the dispute over Ukraine's 2004 presidential election and Moscow's assistance to Iran in building a nuclear facility that the United States fears may be used to make nuclear weapons.

"Russia did a lot in Afghanistan in the beginning, but not much since," McFaul said. "I think that many consider Russia a liability ... because of how unstable things still are in and around Chechnya."

Disappointment with the relationship has been mounting in the Kremlin as well, analysts say.

Bush's repeated promises to help Russia join the World Trade Organization and lift the punitive 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which curbed trade with the former Soviet Union, have so far yielded no results, undercutting Putin's drive to boost his country's economy by opening the Russian market to Western investment.

Recent popular uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine have caused alarm in Russia, which believes they were orchestrated by Washington, said Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.

"Putin seems to think ... that forces in the State Department (and) Congress ... are working to use 'flower revolutions' not to advance democracy but to pursue American geopolitical objectives - and even to try and affect the 2008 (presidential) elections in Russia itself," Gvosdev said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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