WASHINGTON – The tenor of Russian-American relations has gone from elation to guarded optimism, and most recently, to wariness and doubt that high expectations for democracy and friendship can ever be fulfilled, sources on both sides are suggesting.
Several Russians and Americans, who were among the dozens of policy experts attending this year's World Russia Forum (search), sponsored in part by the Russia House in Washington, D.C., said they noticed a lack of the usual optimism that usually accompanies the annual event.
"We're fighting a kind of new Cold War," said Nikolai Zlobin of the Center for Defense Information (search).
The two nations have shared many ongoing partnerships, from education to military endeavors over the last decade, but the relationship has foundered of late, observers have noted.
Critics from each side have differed on whether Russia or the United States is responsible for the recent chill. On one hand, Americans are disappointed with what they say are dashed hopes for Russian democracy following the fall of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.
Those upset by Russian policies have blamed rampant corruption and crime for the poor standard of living and shaky democratic process. They also cited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (search) recent crackdown on free speech and a consolidation of state power reminiscent of past authoritarian regimes.
“Russia's commitment to principles of democracy and free-market economics is falling short,” said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., in a recent statement to Congress.
But many voices from both sides have said the United States is equally to blame for the backsliding freedoms and bad relations.
“It’s easy to blame Putin, which most people do, for the most obvious things,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., an expert on Russian affairs for more than 20 years. “But we need to understand why the Russians are doing what they are doing and how we might take some responsibility for the course they have taken.”
Weldon said that neglect, plus a number of diplomatic missteps, have led to deeper and deeper mistrust of Americans among the Russian people.
Aleksander Grigoryev, an editor for Washington ProFile (search), a non-profit international wire service that pumps American news into the hands of Russian-speaking subscribers, said the misunderstanding between the two cultures is at an all-time high.
He said a lethal combination of the war in Iraq, the Russian view of American foreign policy and culture, along with a state-run media that thrives on anti-U.S. bias, has led to a growing “hatred” for the American way of life among the Russian people.
“Right now, state-run Russian media is a huge engine of anti-American propaganda,” said Grigoryev, who added that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Russia did not support, took these feelings over the top. “This problem is extremely serious.”
"Iraq broke down relations completely," said Zlobin, adding that the Russian people turned quickly on Americans when the United States led a coalition to invade Iraq despite its failure to get a U.N. resolution, which Russia opposed. "It's become a state policy to hate Americans."
But the State Department has distanced itself from charges against Russia. In a February briefing following Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones said both countries are working together on fighting terrorism in former Soviet strongholds. Talks over Russia's sale of weapons to Iran and its nuclear program have also been progressing.
"We are able to talk about these issues in quite an open and frank manner, and that's valuable," Jones said.
But Cox and other lawmakers said several of Putin's actions are worthy of penalty, including a recent crackdown on independent media, which has resulted in total dominance of state-run television; March elections, which many believe were rigged in Putin's favor; and the arrest of one of Putin's ardent critics, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (search), on fraud and tax evasion charges.
Some congressional members have been supportive of legislation asking President Bush to suspend Russia’s membership in the G8 (search). Cox has co-sponsored a House resolution urging that action if Russia does not adhere to the principles generally held by the other seven nations, which include Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan and Germany.
“Russia does not enjoy an open, competitive political system that protects freedom of expression and association and its government does not uphold universal standards of human rights," Cox said in a statement following the resolution's passage in the House International Relations Committee on April 1.
Weldon argued that such resolutions are reactionary and "shortsighted," and do not take into account the U.S. culpability in Russia's problems, which he says began in the 1990s when American companies helped siphon off nearly $5 billion in foreign loans to a handful of corrupt oligarchs.
“I can recall speech after speech I made in the '90s where I said we knew corruption was taking place and as an administration and Congress, we didn’t want to talk about it," he told Foxnews.com. "We pretended we did not see it."
State Department officials added that any efforts to penalize Russia would cause a deeper schism between the two nations.
"There have been mistakes on the Russian side and on the U.S. side," said Eugene Vertlieb, a Russian-born scholar who now works for the George Marshall European Center (search) in Germany. Recently, he wrote that the "friendship of convenience" could be greater if the two nations would bend a little.
"Our nations will simply have to stick together through thick and thin," he wrote in a paper distributed at the World Russia Forum. "Now is the day of reckoning."
Zlobin said that enthusiasm for cultural exchanges — like "sister cities" — has never been high, so building understanding must be left to governments and elites.
“You talk about U.S. and Russian cooperation but no one knows how to put it together, we have no political framework to do that," said Zlobin. "It makes (relations) more unstable and vulnerable and much more dangerous.”
Jones acknowledged that understanding would have to start at the top.
"[It's] one of the benefits of having the close, the good personal relationship that our leaders have," she said.