The unusual silence which blanketed Russian-U.S. relations in the days immediately following U.S. President George W. Bush’s inauguration came to a close this week as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held a telephone conversation on January 30, and Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin followed with a brief fifteen-minute telephone consultation of their own a day later. Few details on the Bush-Putin talk were released, which conversation Bush spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman described simply as a “friendly get-acquainted session.” She also said that the two men had agreed that “it would be a good idea to meet” and had “stressed the importance of engaging one another in an ongoing dialogue.”
Russian sources were only a little more talkative. They went out of their way, for example, to say that Putin had pushed for a resolution of the Pavel Borodin case. A Kremlin statement also said that both men had “expressed the firm intention to develop Russian-U.S. cooperation, a close and fruitful dialogue between the two countries and to find mutually acceptable solutions to problematic questions.” They reportedly discussed a timetable for the first meetings that are to take place between senior Russian and U.S. officials. According to the equally brief reports which followed the Powell-Ivanov conversation, the two men are slated to meet sometime “in the near future” (Reuters, AP, January 31; Segodnya, February 1; Russian agencies, January 31-February 1).
This week’s conversations appeared to ease only partially the uncomfortable start in relations since Bush was announced the winner of the U.S. election. This is not entirely surprising. During the U.S. presidential campaign Bush and those around him had criticized Clinton administration policy toward Russia and suggested that they would take a harder line toward Moscow. The then U.S. president-elect had confirmed that approach in a New York Times interview last month in which he said that Washington would now link aid for Russia to Kremlin actions aimed at rooting out corruption. Bush’s statements generated some outrage in Moscow, and added to tensions already looming over two of the Bush administration’s expected major foreign policy initiatives: a push both to develop a U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system and to accept new members into the NATO alliance. Moscow vigorously opposes both measures (New York Times, January 14; Reuters, AFP, January 15).
Although some reports had suggested that the Russians were pushing hard behind the scenes for early contacts with the new U.S. administration, the discomfort Moscow seemed to feel was evidenced in the near dearth of official comment from the Russian capital following the Bush inaugural. Indeed, in the wake also of Pavel Borodin’s arrest in New York on January 17, most of Russia’s political elite reportedly chose to snub invitations to a celebration of the inauguration held at the U.S. embassy in Moscow (UPI, January 21).
The Kremlin’s silence apparently ended a few days later, however, when officials in both Moscow and Washington reported that on January 23 Putin had dispatched a letter to the U.S. president. In addition to congratulating Bush, the message reportedly also set out the major issues on which Putin thought Russia and the United States could cooperate and confirmed the Russian leader’s “readiness to work toward broadening interaction between Russia and the United States.” Although a U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman reportedly confirmed that Bush had received the letter, some doubt was cast on its substance by Russian reports denouncing as “falsifications” texts of the message that it said had been publicized by foreign media (Strana.ru, January 25; Russian agencies, January 26).
Russian-U.S. relations also took a hit, meanwhile, when the U.S. State Department on January 24 expressed doubts about a Kremlin-announced plan to cut Russian troops in Chechnya and urged the Putin government to open negotiations with Chechen leaders. On January 25, in what was probably an attempt to favorably influence a debate on Chechnya by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (see the Monitor, January 29), Russia offered to discuss the Caucasus conflict with the new U.S. administration. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov suggested unexpectedly that the issue would likely be high on the agenda when Russian officials finally sat down for talks with the Bush team (AP, January 24; AFP, January 25).
That first face-to-face meeting is likely to come, albeit indirectly, this weekend, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld travels to Germany to attend the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy (commonly known as the Wehrkunde Conference). The influential head of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, is to attend, as are ministers from a host of U.S. allied countries. Most important, perhaps, the German government in the persons of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping will also attend. They reportedly intend to press Rumsfeld for some answers regarding not only U.S. missile defense plans, but also the Bush administration’s thoughts on a planned EU defense force. Rumsfeld will apparently also face questions regarding NATO’s use of depleted uranium munitions during the air war against Yugoslavia and U.S. calls for European countries to boost defense spending (The Guardian, February 2; UPI, February 1). That Germany may be emerging as a focal point of European opposition to U.S. national missile defense was suggested earlier this week when, during a visit to Moscow, Scharping appeared to embrace some of Russia’s own complaints about U.S. missile defense plans (see yesterday’s Monitor).
While Saturday’s talks will presumably be seen as a chance merely for the allies to take a first cut at this complex of security problems, the Russian delegation seems likely to try to accentuate and exploit those divisions which do exist between the United States and Europe. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov used an appearance at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva yesterday to urge retention of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and to repeat Russian calls for the nuclear powers to find an alternative to U.S. national defense plans (International Herald Tribune, February 2). Russian officials seem likely to adopt a similar posture in Munich.
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