Don't Believe The Spin

Visiting Moscow a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell started off a working meeting with a champagne toast. His counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, joined in. Have the United States and Russia reconciled their bitter differences over Iraq? That's certainly the line being pushed by diplomatic spinmeisters in Washington and Moscow. Russia recently backed U.S. efforts to lift sanctions against Iraq in the U.N. Security Council. The Bushies returned the favor by telling anyone who would listen that Vladimir Putin remains far more popular in the White House than either of his friends from France and Germany. Then came last weekend's chummy encounter in St. Petersburg, followed by more schmoozing in Evian.

Whoa. For all the nice noises, the much-touted "strategic partnership" between Washington and Moscow has suffered serious damage. Gone are the cozy days of yore, when George W. Bush and "Vladimir" looked into each other's eyes and spoke of religion. If the war in Iraq did anything, it was to inject a new realism into U.S.-Russian relations--and underscore the deep differences that will almost certainly continue to divide them.

Part of this new sobriety is personal. For George Bush, personal relationships count heavily. The U.S. president has been disappointed by Putin's failure to act like a pal during the Iraq crisis. "If you're my buddy, and I'm facing the greatest decision of my life, I want you to be there when things get tough," says Russia expert Michael McFaul at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But Putin has a different view. As near as I can tell, he's never used the word 'friend' to describe his dealings with Bush."

Even more important is the new sense of how profoundly the two countries' national interests diverge. Officials on both sides try to dismiss the Iraq rift as a "misunderstanding." One senior U.S. diplomat speaks of Moscow having been "caught out," even "hijacked" by France and Germany in opposing the war. In fact, it was a disagreement of fundamental principle. Russians still insist that the United Nations should be the main forum for deciding issues of war and peace. The Bush administration continues to argue its right to unilateral force in dealing with security threats. Witness the latest rhetoric concerning Iran and North Korea.

Moscow is especially worried by what it sees as a new U.S. messianism. "America should understand that the war in Iraq is increasing tension in the world rather than reducing it," complains one Kremlin official. Putin is said to be particularly wary of the Bush administration's apparent urge to remake the world in America's image. "America frightens us, in the sense that Bush is a world revolutionary," says a Putin adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky. "In this respect, there's a lack of clarity in his relationship with Bush." Nor does Russia share much enthusiasm for the doctrine of "humanitarian interventionism," increasingly shared by the United States and many Europeans. Instead, it cleaves to a much more traditional concept of national sovereignty and the sanctity of "internal affairs." "We think it's good that the Taliban have been removed from Kabul," Pavlovsky adds. "But we don't think that means that you can set up a bicameral legislature, introduce 'democracy' and do the same in all other countries of the world." Democracy should be homegrown, not imposed by America.

So while the war in Iraq may be over, tensions are not about to fade away. When Bush's closest European ally, Tony Blair, recently visited Moscow, Putin harshly criticized him. "Where is Saddam?" he asked sharply, suggesting the war was both unnecessary and ultimately unsuccessful. Like France and Germany, he's determined to see the United Nations play a central role in Iraq. Like them, as well, he sees the United Nations as a key check on U.S. power and ambitions. And along with Paris and Berlin, he rejects Washington's calls that debts owed by the Saddam regime (including $8 billion to Russia) are void.

Perhaps most ominously, there's Iran. Even as the United States steps up its rhetoric against the mullahs, Russia continues its quiet alliance--including work on the Bushehr nuclear power plant, condemned by Washington as the centerpiece of Iran's drive to get atomic weapons. If the United States intensifies the confrontation, it could find itself colliding with Moscow as well. It's doubtful that even the best of friendships could weather that.