WASHINGTON – The now familiar face of deceased Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, the victim of a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, has left many Americans wondering if Russia today is as alien to them as it was during the Cold War.
Before dying, Litvinenko pointed his finger directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denied committing any crime, and while the case will likely never be resolved, at least two U.S. senators say the former KGB colonel is moving the country away from democracy and other U.S. ideals.
"I think this guy is taking Russia backward," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"Russia is moving more and more to an oligarchy here. Putin is consolidating power," added Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who appeared with Graham on "FOX News Sunday" earlier this month.
"Our relations with Russia have to get straightened out," Biden said, suggesting the United States have a "direct confrontation" with Putin, and perhaps even threaten to review the country's membership in the elite G-8 group of industrialized nations.
Russia is no longer the largest partner in the communist Soviet Union nor is it locked any longer in a mutually destructive nuclear arms race with the United States. But the country is not the thriving free-market democracy American policymakers had hoped would flourish after the fall of the USSR in 1991, and many analysts on both sides say they are disappointed the United States can not call Russia "friend."
"It's not a Cold War, but it's not much warmer," said Nikolai Zlobin, a fellow with the World Security Institute in Washington, DC. "We don't have bilateral relations anymore. It's open space, it's empty."
"The Cold War was marked by a conflict of ideologies and a conflict of interests," said Jay Bergman, Russian history professor at Central Connecticut State University. "The differences in our respective ideologies and interests remain and might be as much as in the Cold War."
Putin is largely the reason why Americans are scratching their heads and wondering what happened since those heady days when hands across the two continents seemed to spell such promise.
Since taking office in 1999, he has consolidated economic and political power with the government, controls much of the country's rich oil and natural gas industry and keeps an iron thumb on dissidents through control of the media and intimidation, according to Aleksandr Grigoryev, editor of Washington ProFile, a privately run news bulletin that provides Russian journalists reports from the United States.
"No one else has the same level of power as Mr. Putin does in Russia," Grigoryev said. "Everything depends on Putin."
In the midst of it all, Russia has consistently sided against the United States on critical positions at the U.N. Security Council, including support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and calls for tough sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
"The level of anti-Americanism in Russia has risen sharply," Grigoryev said, noting that a recent poll showed 25 percent of Russians believe the United States is Russia's enemy. He said government control of the media steers public perceptions.
"Russian ideology is anti-American right now and nothing can change until Putin is out of power," he said.
Putin is up for re-election in 2008. Right now, he is enjoying a 70 percent approval rating at home.
"I think Mr. Bush could only dream about the level of this popularity," Grigoryev said.
Blame to Go Around
Putin's success has come in part from a general disillusionment from and disgust with the Russian leap into a free-market democracy 15 years ago, analysts say.
"In 1991, Russia was as pro-American as you could imagine," said Ed Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow. "There were huge expectations."
Billions of dollars in investment and foreign aid flowed unchecked into Russia — and into the pockets of future crime bosses and greedy businessmen, many with American ties. Much of the cash did not reach the general public. Poverty, unemployment and crime skyrocketed and is still a problem today.
"The economy was devastated," said Lozansky. "I don't want to say everything that went wrong was because of the United States. But people felt that Americans did not come to help but to simply take advantage of the ruins of the Soviet Union."
Right or wrong, this sentiment was felt so strongly that when Putin — then-prime minister to former President Boris Yeltsin — was thrust into power after Yeltsin's resignation, he was embraced as the man who could bring back Russia's old glory, said Zlobin.
"Russia is the only country that lost everything at the end of the Cold War," including international status, influence and confidence, Zlobin said. "Putin and Putin's government became a symbol of what Russia was trying to get back."
Bergman said in those early post-Yeltsin years, Putin began steering Russia back to its roots, particularly at a time when Russians needed it the most.
"My sense is what we are seeing now in Russia is a resurgence in what I would call the Russian national culture," Bergman said, describing it as paternalistic, politically reflexive and not at all what the West had in mind after the fall of the "Iron Curtain" in the 1980s.
As Putin began to consolidate power, the economy began to grow and confidence did too, the specialists said. Today, oil production is up and tax revenues are flowing into government coffers. On the other hand, statistics show unemployment, crime and poverty are still major problems.
"Russia became more powerful; it's trying to become as influential as the Soviet Union was," said Grigoryev.
As for Litvinenko, the former Russian spy turned Putin critic, he died on Nov. 23 from exposure to the radioactive isotope polonium 210. He was reportedly poisoned while meeting a source in London about the October murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Politkovskaya had been working on an article alleging torture in Chechnya under Kremlin-appointed Chechnya Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. British police are still investigating Litvinenko's poisoning and Russian authorities have yet to finger Politkovskaya's murderers.
A New Cold War?
U.S.-Russian relations started out the millennium well, with President Bush and Putin on friendly terms. In June 2001 after meeting in Slovenia, Bush said he looked into Putin's soul and saw a good man and an ally.
In retrospect, many critics are wondering exactly what Bush saw. Reports persist that Soviet nuclear technology is getting into the hands of state sponsors of terrorism and the Russians are openly helping the Iranians with their nuclear energy program. Moscow has also reached out to China as a strategic partner.
Since Putin's power grab, economic and cultural partnerships between the United States and Russia, even the much-heralded arms control negotiations, have slowed to a slight trickle, said James Goldgeier, a Russian expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Over time, disillusionment has set in on both sides," he said. "On the Russian side, they got tired of us lecturing them how to handle their domestic affairs. And they got disillusioned with what it meant to be part of these western institutions.'
"And, as they went, especially under Putin, on a more non-democratic path, the United States became more disillusioned about having Russia as a partner," Goldgeier said.
Lozansky suggested that the U.S and Russia need to recognize they have a common enemy in terrorism and may want to work together to bring about more cooperation among power players in Central Asia and the Middle East.
"Every time the Russians and the United States were on the same side, we got great results," he said. "When we start making problems for each other, we both lose."