Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 101

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to Washington last week appears to have raised as many questions as it has answered about the future of relations between Russia and the United States. The most obvious positive accomplishment of Ivanov’s two days in Washington–during which he held intensive negotiations with Secretary of State Colin Powell and met with President George W. Bush, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and U.S. lawmakers–was the announcement that Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a brief summit meeting in Slovenia on June 16. The announcement, which had been anticipated, gives further credence to the notion that a chill in bilateral relations which accompanied the Bush administration’s assent to power is at an end and that Moscow and Washington may now be entering a new period of constructive engagement. The same message was suggested by the generally friendly tone of Ivanov’s talks with Powell, and by the fact that the U.S. Secretary of State appeared on this occasion to soft-peddle earlier U.S. criticisms of Russia related to the ongoing war in Chechnya and the Kremlin’s assault on media freedoms.

Ivanov’s visit provided little evidence, however, that the two sides had narrowed their differences on what remains the biggest obstacle to improved Russian-U.S. ties: Moscow’s opposition to the Bush administration’s missile defense plans. That topic appears to have dominated the consultations which took place between Powell and Ivanov on May 17. It was also the subject of intensive, parallel talks conducted between Russian and U.S. arms negotiators. Few details of the latter talks were made public. That the Kremlin had not softened its opposition to the Bush administration’s intention to proceed with missile defense was suggested in a message which Putin reportedly delivered to Bush. According to Kremlin sources, the Russian president used the message to reiterate Russia’s opposition to missile defense and also to warn that the planned U.S. missile shield would “annul the 1972 ABM (anti-ballistic missile) treaty and all disarmament agreements linked to it.” Powell, meanwhile, indirectly underlined the Bush administration’s own determination to proceed with missile defense development when he warned that consultations on this subject could not go on indefinitely and that at some point the U.S. administration would act on “what we believe are our best interests at that time.” The two sides did reportedly agree to a Russian proposal calling for the creation of two working groups, one of which will consult on potential threats to international security and the other of which will examine the role and future of arms control agreements (Reuters, May 16, 18-19; AFP, May 17; Washington Post, May 19).

Initial Russian commentaries on the Ivanov-Powell talks appeared in general to treat them as a positive development and one that could open the door to more constructive Russian-U.S. relations. They also suggested that the lack of progress on the missile defense issue was not unexpected, and speculated that negotiations on so difficult and divisive a topic were, in any event, likely to be a long and difficult process.

But Russian commentaries on the current state of Russian-U.S. relations tended toward caution and skepticism, suggesting that the recent upturn in ties is both conditional and dependent on U.S. motivations that over the longer term may prove unsustainable. The Russian daily Izvestia, for example, opined that the Bush administration’s shift to a friendlier posture toward Russia is in many ways the product of diplomatic difficulties Washington has encountered of late in relations with countries in both Europe and Asia, and particularly in its dealings with Beijing. “Under these circumstances,” the newspaper writes, “the Russian factor has is becoming more significant for the Bush administration.” The Russian daily Kommersant made a similar point, arguing that Washington’s European allies–who are determined to maintain partnership relations with Russia–had rebelled and demanded that Washington do more to engage Moscow. Against this background, the newspaper warned that the Bush administration’s newly friendly attitude toward Moscow might be less than sincere. “It certainly seems that the Americans have decided to create an illusion of dialogue with Russia just to placate their European allies,” the newspaper wrote (Kommersant, May 18; Izvestia, May 19).

The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, meanwhile, posed the million-dollar question for Moscow when it asked exactly where Russia should “seek consolation: in the fact that Russian-American dialogue is finally starting, or [in] whether it will result in what Russian diplomacy wants?” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 22). The Russian Foreign Ministry would probably respond that, for the time being at least, the former is sufficient. Moscow appears to see the simple act of restarting negotiations with the United States as a significant development because it reaffirms, in Russia’s view, its own importance as a major player on the world stage and provides a high-profile forum from which Moscow can expound its own ideas on arms control and international other issues. And should Russia and the United States fail to reach some sort of accommodation on missile defense and arms control, Moscow presumably hopes to position itself so that the Bush administration is blamed–by the Europeans and others–for the failure of negotiations.