U.S. rethinks ties with Russia

Incursion into Georgia casts Putin in new light

August 15, 2008|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON - Russia's military offensive into Georgia has jolted the Bush administration's relationship with Moscow, senior officials said yesterday, forcing a wholesale reassessment of American dealings with Russia and jeopardizing talks on issues from halting Iran's nuclear ambitions to reducing strategic arsenals and cooperation on missile defenses.

The conflict punctuated a stark turnabout in the administration's view of Vladimir V. Putin, the president-turned-prime minister whom President Bush has repeatedly described as a trustworthy friend. Now Bush's aides complain that Russian officials have been misleading or at least evasive about Russia's intentions in Georgia.

Even as the conflict between Russia and Georgia appeared to ease yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the Russian attack had forced a fundamental rethinking of the administration's effort to forge "an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with Russia."

"Russia's behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO," Gates said at the Pentagon.

"If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come."

The unspoken new danger is that a cooling relationship could cost the administration any hope of working closely with Russia on some of its top priorities: controlling nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism and resolving the problems of the Middle East.

If Russia and the United States rarely acted as allies in Bush's presidency, they also rarely allowed disagreements to undermine what Bush considered one of his bedrock diplomatic relationships.

After their first meeting in 2001, Bush said famously that he had looked into the eyes of Putin and "got a sense of his soul."

Bush has pursued policies that Putin vigorously opposed, including supporting the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a Russian ally; expanding NATO to include some former Soviet-bloc nations; and stationing elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

But the two worked closely together to battle terrorism. Administration officials said that Putin generally cooperated in efforts to curtail nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Only four months ago, Bush and Putin met in Sochi, the Russian resort only miles from Georgia, and signed a "framework agreement" that pledged to cooperate on a variety of diplomatic and security matters and declared that "the era in which the United States and Russia considered one another an enemy or strategic threat has ended."

Gates, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveled twice to Moscow in the past year for discussions on that agreement, which is now overshadowed by the war and appears unlikely to progress any time soon, if ever.

Bush has not directly addressed his relationship with Putin or his successor, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, and his aides declined yesterday to discuss his views personally.

But he has bluntly warned Russia that it risks losing its international standing.

After postponing a trip to his ranch in Texas by a day, Bush traveled to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., for a briefing on the situation in Georgia.

Bush reiterated his call "for the territorial integrity of Georgia to be respected and the cease-fire agreement to be honored."

In contrast to the tough talk, Rice rushed to the former Soviet republic with a new cease-fire plan offering concessions to Moscow.

That document would allow Russian peacekeepers who were in the disputed South Ossetia region before the fighting broke to stay, and they would now be permitted to patrol in a strip up to six miles outside the area, U.S. officials said. But that allowance would be temporary, and details were still to be worked out, the officials said.

Both Georgia and Russia took steps back from open conflict yesterday, with Russia largely ending air operations over Georgia and preparing to withdraw at least some of the troops it had moved into the country, Gates said.

But the issue of Georgia's territorial integrity appeared increasingly uncertain after Medvedev met with the leaders of two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. His foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, declared that Georgia "can forget about" reclaiming sovereignty over the regions.

Bush rescheduled his departure for Texas for today. Rice, he said, would brief him after returning from a trip to France and Georgia intended to show American support for Georgia's shaken president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

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