Washington policy on Russia wobbling

By Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel
Los Angeles Times / August 14, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Other than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few foreign policy initiatives have gotten more diplomatic attention from the Bush administration recently than thawing its increasingly chilly relationship with Russia.

Twice over the past 10 months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have been sent on joint missions to convince the Kremlin that it should cooperate on everything from missile defense to nuclear proliferation.

But the conflict in Georgia this week has left efforts to engage Russia in disarray, and there are increasing signs that administration hard-liners are using the crisis to reassert their view that Moscow should be isolated.

Vice President Dick Cheney's declaration Saturday that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered" was seen by some specialists as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy.

Some conservatives feel the administration has not been tough enough with Russia. Frederick W. Kagan, a neoconservative scholar who has advised the Bush administration, praised Cheney's comment and faulted Bush for failing to outline to the Russians what would be the consequence of pressing their assault.

Kagan and others are gathering arguments for the policy deliberations already underway on how to deal with the aftermath of the Georgian crisis. Some Bush administration officials are likely to press for dropping Russia from the Group of Eight, which includes the seven major industrial countries and Russia, and blocking its admission into the World Trade Organization. The United States also could pledge to rebuild the Georgian military and cut Russia out of discussion over the missile defense system in Europe.

A tougher stance would represent a significant shift for the administration, which recast its approach to Russia in Bush's second term. During Rice and Gates's March visit to Moscow, they carried a personal letter from Bush to then-president Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister, that tried to strike a conciliatory tone on a range of issues.

That was a contrast from the opening months of the Bush administration when advisers pushed the White House to unilaterally pull out of arms control treaties and propose American military bases in former Warsaw Pact countries.

"There has always seemed to be a split within the government, so a consistent policy for dealing with Russia has been absent," said James Townsend, a former Pentagon official. "In the first term there were a lot of hard-liners on Russia who did not look kindly on cooperation."

Kagan said the United States should announce it will provide military aid to Georgia: "It would be great if we were to announce we are going to help the Georgians rebuild as part of the compensation for their efforts in Iraq."

Other regional specialists believe Washington and NATO should enforce a no-fly zone over Georgia to put a halt to Russian air attacks.

"At what point does the West do something meaningful? Having the president backslapping with Putin at the Olympics is not a serious attempt to deal with the problem," said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "The Georgians, who took us at our word when we talked about a partnership, have got to be wondering what Bush is all about."

Pentagon officials have dismissed calls for NATO combat air patrols, but Phillips said that calculation could change if Russia begins strafing Tbilisi.

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