WASHINGTON – As both a "deeply devout American patriot," and a "best friend of the Russians," Rep. Curt Weldon (search) has no problem blaming both sides for the current diplomatic freeze between the two nations during and since the war in Iraq.
But the Pennsylvania Republican, who for the last 20 years has worked to strengthen U.S.-Russian relations, expressed hope Tuesday that the two nations will be able patch things up for a more positive alliance in the future.
"I say there is blame on both sides," he told an audience Tuesday at the annual World Russian Forum in Washington, D.C.
Weldon said he is deeply concerned by reports that Russia passed to Iraq details of secret pre-war conversations between Prime Ministers Tony Blair (search) of Britain and Silvio Berlusconi (search) of Italy and that Russian companies sold military equipment to Iraq.
However, walking away from Russia would be a big mistake.
"That would be absolutely, totally, the wrong decision to make," he said.
As a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council (search), Russia angered the Bush administration when it joined Germany and France in refusing to support the U.S.-led coalition in toppling the Iraqi regime.
The intransigence by the United States' would-be allies led the "coalition of the willing" to go ahead with Operation Iraqi Freedom in March without U.N. backing.
But unlike the frosty fallout aimed at Germany and France, U.S. officials appear open to repairing the damage with Russia and returning to the upbeat relations the two nations had been pursuing before the Iraq war.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice traveled to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin in April, and President Bush is expected to be on hand for the St. Petersburg 300th anniversary celebration in late May.
"A very true test will be the president’s visit in May," said Celeste Wallender, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Wallender said she does not believe the rift between the two countries is irreparable, but that future relations will depend on how much Russia will call for more U.N. involvement in managing postwar Iraq and assert its prewar oil contracts in the war-torn country.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who also spoke before Tuesday's forum sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Russia House, said the two countries’ differences over Iraq were "irrelevant," and would not mar future diplomatic efforts.
"America is certainly not going to hold grudges against Russia," he told the very pro-Russia audience. "I don’t think we will have large problems."
But foreign policy experts warn that U.S. treatment of Russia, along with serious strategic and political miscalculations on Putin’s part, led to the rift in the first place and need to be examined carefully.
"I think we were on the right track before the Iraq war," said Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen, noting that both countries were working together to fight the common adversary of terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks.
However, Russian refusal to get on board with the war in Iraq was "unfriendly and not a performance of an ally by any stretch of the imagination."
Cohen said Putin was "ill-served by his foreign ministry," which is filled with Soviet old guards who gave him poor advice and bad information about U.S. military capability.
If Putin were ill informed, the Russian public was even more in the dark about U.S. intentions, Cohen said, and that fueled already-existing anti-American sentiment in the region.
That anti-Americanism put Putin — up for re-election next year — under a lot of pressure, said Arkady Murachev, a visiting fellow with the Robert Krieble Institute of Freedom and Democracy in Washington.
But the biggest mistake Putin made, said both Cohen and Weldon, was breaking U.N. sanctions by selling equipment to the Iraqis and in effect spying for them.
While Putin denied knowledge of these diplomatic transgressions, there was clearly a "wink and nod go-ahead provided by Russian leadership," Cohen said.
Weldon said he personally wrote to Putin and members of the Russian Parliament to tell them they were making a "fundamental mistake" in opposing the war in Iraq.
Weldon, who insists he is not "an apologist" for the Russians, said that despite Russia's failings, U.S. policy toward it has been long on talk and short on action over the past decade.
Among the actions leaving Russia feeling the cold shoulder were the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the expansion of NATO to include many former Warsaw Pact nations and the refusal to lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions.
"What did we give Putin? We didn’t give him much. And what were the Russian people seeing from us? In my opinion, not much," said Weldon. "I’m not saying this forgives their lack of cooperation [in Iraq]. But we’re not doing enough to engage Russia."
And though the United States has plenty to do in the way of repairing relations, Russia too has to decide where it stands.
"A lot of things can be done together, but you can’t sit on two chairs at the same time," said Cohen. "You can’t be a friend and an adversary at the same time."