Putin action causes U.S. concern

Administration reacting with restraint over move to consolidate power


WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reacted with guarded criticism of President Vladimir V. Putin's new steps to consolidate his power over Russia's political system, warning that the fight against militants should not become an excuse to move away from "democratic reforms or the democratic process."

Powell, speaking in an interview with the Reuters news agency, said that Bush administration officials would raise concerns about Putin's actions "in the days ahead," but he did not specify who would be involved. Powell is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations General Assembly next week.

The White House issued a statement from a senior official saying that Putin's demand Monday for a sweeping overhaul of Russia's political system "raises some questions that we would like to address" with future meetings.

Taken together, the administration's reaction was seen as restrained, reflecting rising concerns over what has been a general souring of the relationship with Russia over the past year. Officials have been alarmed that even mild criticism of Russia has strained relations between the two countries.

Powell, in defending the administration's record on foreign policy during this presidential election season, has frequently asserted that relations with Russia are better than they have been in many years. He has cited cooperation over militants as one of many areas in which Russia and the United States have worked together.

Critics, including many former Clinton administration officials, have charged that President Bush and his foreign policy team have refrained from criticism of Russia's internal crackdown on dissent - a criticism that some on the Bush team used to make about advisers to President Bill Clinton.

In 2001, shortly after taking office, Bush declared that he had come to understand Putin's "heart and soul" and was looking forward to doing business with him. He has invited Putin to Camp David and to his ranch in Texas, and praised the Russian leader for his farsighted vision and understanding of the fight against terrorism.

But increasingly, administration officials have been willing to say off the record that the United States is disappointed that relations have not improved the way many had hoped after Bush's initial statements on Putin.

People around Bush say there has been no small concern about recent anti-democratic actions, including the prosecution of business leaders who are critics of Putin's government and the distribution of government assets to friends of the Russian leader.

Though he is visiting the United Nations next week, it is unclear whether Bush will meet with any Russian officials.

Some in the administration have suggested that the problem of the rebellion in Chechnya is related to the region's chafing under Russian rule since czarist times and that these nationalist concerns must be addressed through negotiations.

Putin lashed out against that suggestion a week ago, and more recently administration officials have emphasized the importance of cracking down on militants through military action.

On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked at a question-and-answer forum whether he thought that the deadly school siege in Beslan would lead to the Russians taking "a more aggressive stance, and standing more strongly with us as we continue to fight terrorists around the globe."

"I think they will," Cheney said, adding that Russia's failure to support the war in Iraq did not mean that it would escape being hit by militants. "I think what happened in Russia now demonstrates pretty conclusively that everybody is a target. ... They did not get involved in sending troops there. They've gotten hit anyway."

He said Russia might be "reassessing" its tactics in light of the Beslan attack.

But administration officials seemed taken aback that if such a reassessment was taking place, it involved Putin's move to consolidate his power over the legislative branch and regional governments in Russia, which experts say are not the source of any support for attacks.

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