Rice gives Russia cold shoulder over Georgia

Two and a half years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S. ties with Russia were the best they had been for "quite some time."

Now she and her Russian counterpart are barely on speaking terms over Georgia, and foreign policy analysts are worried that the soured relations will curtail Washington's diplomatic clout around the world.

Rice, a career Soviet expert and Russian speaker, already had a prickly relationship with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before war broke out between U.S. ally Georgia and Russia this month. But they had worked closely on issues such as Iran's nuclear program.

With U.S.-Russian ties deteriorating sharply over Georgia, however, U.S. officials said on Friday Rice had not spoken to Lavrov for nearly two weeks -- since a ceasefire was negotiated that Washington accuses Russia of disobeying.

She has not visited Moscow either, but she went to Georgia to show support for beleaguered President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"There's no need to pick up the phone and talk to the Russians right now," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "Our position is very clear about what Russia needs to do. ... Russia needs to fulfill its ceasefire obligations."

The war in Georgia has driven U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point since the Cold War. Tensions further escalated when the United States and Poland, amid the crisis, agreed to a missile defense deal Moscow had bitterly opposed.

Russia, ignoring all urgings and threats from the West, then recognized Georgia's rebel regions as independent states and accused U.S. officials of provoking the conflict.

In response, Washington appears to be stepping away from high-level contacts and linking bilateral relations to progress on this one divisive issue, analysts said.

'Questionable Strategy'

But analysts warn that in such an intense crisis with Moscow, it is a mistake to give Russia the cold shoulder.

"This is a questionable strategy for the United States at a time when so much else on our agenda involves Russia," said Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a Newsweek magazine column.

"We can't just freeze the Russians out," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. "The United States needs to be in charge of the diplomacy with its allies, and that means among other things talking to the Russians."

The U.S.-Russian relationship had soured before the conflict, despite pledges of broad strategic cooperation with Moscow during President George W. Bush's first term.

Even though Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were Soviet experts, the administration was distracted by Iraq, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Now Washington may be trying to line up a common Western response before communicating again with Moscow, he said. The European Union holds an emergency summit on the Georgia crisis on Monday, and it was urgent to "make sure Washington and Europe are on the same page," Pifer said.

"If you get that right, you'll be in a much greater position to have the conversation with Lavrov," he said.

'Difficult Period'

Moscow's military actions in Georgia, seen in Washington as a brazen Kremlin challenge to Bush's "freedom and democracy" agenda, have put the administration in a reactive mode.

Rice's words about Moscow have gotten angrier. Moscow was an outlaw that wanted to strangle Tbilisi, she said.

But back in February 2006 Rice declared: "In general, I think we have very good relations with Russia, probably the best relations that have been there for quite some time."

In the same CBS television interview, however, she expressed concerns about the future of democracy in Russia and its treatment of its neighbors, pointing to severe limits on nongovernmental organizations and Russia's use of energy as a weapon in a dispute with ex-Soviet Ukraine.

"I personally believe there were ample signs for the past two years that we were heading into an increasingly tense and hotter situation," said James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

"I fear we are in for a reasonably difficult period. It does not seem that either side, or sides, are in any way inclined to say: 'Let's step back and think about how we are going to turn this into a constructive direction, get the issues back on to the negotiating table," Collins said.

Haass said Washington should bring Russia into global clubs, not threaten, as it has, to block Moscow's membership.

"We should lower U.S. barriers to Russia's joining the World Trade Organization, not raise them," he said. "Autocratic Russia is more likely to evolve into something more open if it is integrated into modern institutions than if it is left outside."

[Source: Reuters, Washington, 31Aug08]

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