Bush changes tone of U.S.-Russia relations

Flexible Clinton posture is out and is replaced by no-nonsense rhetoric

New U.S. attitude

March 23, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Espionage, expelled diplomats and tough talk on missiles and human rights have marked the first two months of President Bush's Russia policy.

Is the Cold War making a comeback, as some Russians charged yesterday?

U.S. officials say no. The Bush administration portrays recent differences with Moscow as normal fluctuations in a complex relationship with as many positive aspects as negative.

"I'm confident that we can have good relations with the Russians," Bush said yesterday. "There are some areas where we can work together."

That may be true. Even so, early in his term, Bush and his advisers have shown a much harder line toward Russia than did former President Bill Clinton, who was criticized by Republicans for what they saw as coddling Moscow with wasted aid and insufficiently forceful rhetoric on human rights and weapons proliferation.

Bush's decision this week to eject 52 Russian diplomats was the largest such move since 1986, when former President Ronald Reagan ordered 80 Soviets out of the country near the end of the Cold War.

Bush had plenty of provocation.

Last month, Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI counterintelligence agent, was arrested on spy charges that, if proven true, would represent one of the most damaging espionage cases in U.S. history.

Even before Hanssen was arrested, U.S. officials had been concerned about an increase in the number of Russian intelligence operatives in the United States.

But Bush's expulsion of the Russians sends a message that goes beyond anything to do with espionage. And it parallels other recent moves by the administration -public scoldings, promotion of a national missile defense opposed by Russia - that have demonstrated a new, blunt tone toward Moscow.

"Making this strong statement does kind of fall into line with other things the administration has been doing and saying in its first few weeks in power vis-a-vis the Russians," said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The message is: There is not going to be any more compromise on national security matters to appease Russia."

The expulsions drew approval from some congressional Republicans.

"A tougher line with Russia could be fruitful because they have not lived up to expectations economically or politically," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Moscow's brutal crackdown on rebels in Chechnya, Hyde added, "has been a disappointment. Treatment of the free press has been a disappointment."

Bush's retaliation for the alleged Hanssen spying wasn't as harsh as it could have been; he gave most of the Russians several months to leave the country instead of kicking them out immediately. Even so, several analysts speculated that the response would have been much more muted under Clinton, with fewer diplomats expelled and perhaps less publicity.

Under Clinton, "the paradigm was not to rock the boat, not to upset the apple cart no matter what Russia was doing - and Russia was up to a lot of mischief under Clinton," said Ariel Cohen, a Russia analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "The new paradigm is that we are going to hold Russia to a higher standard. They are grownups, and they have to behave."

Like other aspects of his foreign policy, Bush's position on Russia is still under development. Key sub-cabinet posts relating to Russia remain unfilled, and the president and Cabinet are still hashing over the administration's Moscow posture.

But the signals so far suggest that the new administration has at least temporarily abandoned what many have described as Clinton's habit of flexibility and accommodation toward the Russians. What's unclear is whether the new tone will be permanent after Bush settles in.

"The period that we're going through right now is more a kind of trash talk at the beginning of a basketball game: We're tougher than you are," said Clay Moltz, a Russia analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California. "Once they feel each other out a little bit, the relationship will be very businesslike," even if it differs greatly from that of the Clinton years.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the new stance, and most galling to Moscow, is Bush's determination to press forward with a U.S. national missile defense, even at the risk of having to break the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed with the Soviet Union. Clinton had been considering a missile defense, but his interest in the system came largely at the prodding of Congress and wasn't nearly as intense as Bush's.

And top administration officials have openly rebuked Russia, in sharp contrast to the days when Clinton officials eschewed public criticism of Moscow so as not to risk undermining the political base of then-President Boris N. Yeltsin.

In an interview published Sunday in a British newspaper, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld repeated charges that Russia is providing ballistic missile technology to Iran and other nations.

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