With its military action in Georgia, Russia is trying to show the world that it won't let the West ignore its interests any longer. Although the message is one it has been sending for quite some time, the Bush administration seemingly didn't take it seriously enough, and now the two sides are talking past each other.
The Bush administration has accused Moscow of trying to reassert its sphere of influence and says the U.S. will not tolerate it. Russia, in turn, has accused the U.S. of arming and whitewashing what it calls a "criminal regime" in Georgia.
James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is worried about how the U.S. and Russia will get out of this shouting match.
"We've had a tremendous failure of diplomacy," Collins says.
All sides share in the blame, Collins says. He believes U.S. policymakers haven't been listening to Russia and haven't come to terms with the country's new oil wealth and resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Unfortunately, I'm not sure that our dealings with Russia have mirrored the changes that have taken place there," Collins says. "And at the same time, they have nursed a lot of grudges that, having made a comeback and having achieved recovery, they are still being treated like they were in 1995."
Collins, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the U.S. marched ahead with a foreign policy agenda that basically ignored Russian concerns — a long list that included the war in Iraq and American support for Kosovo's independence.
Along the way, President Bush did get a chance to hear Russia's concerns. After attending this year's NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania — where he pushed hard to put Georgia and Ukraine on track for NATO membership — he traveled to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. He met with then-President Vladimir Putin, who complained about U.S. efforts to expand NATO into Russia's backyard.
"I believe that in order to improve relations with Russia, it is necessary not to pull the former Soviet republics into political/military blocs, but to develop relations with Russia itself," Putin said. "And then the actions of the bloc in a few years will not be perceived so acutely in this country, as is the case today."
Putin also raised concerns about a U.S. missile defense program utilizing Polish and Czech bases. Bush said he felt he had a good enough relationship with Putin to talk through differences.
"A lot of times in politics, you have people look you in the eye and tell you what's not on their mind," Bush said after the April meeting. "He looks you in the eye and tells you what's on his mind. He's been very truthful. And to me, that's the only way you can find common ground, and to be able to deal in a way that you don't let your disputes interrupt your relationships."
Putin is now Russia's prime minister and plays the key role in the conflict in Georgia, though President Dmitry Medvedev negotiated the recent cease-fire. Again, U.S. officials seem to be having a hard time reading the situation in Moscow.
A former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Thomas Pickering, has some advice.
"On these kinds of things, as President Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis, you deal with the points that are being made on the other side with which you can agree or with which you want to work," Pickering said. "We all tend to believe that Mr. Putin calls the main shots even if Mr. Medvedev tends, from time to time, to look like a friendlier bear to deal with."
But rather than looking for ways to work with Russia, the administration has focused on ways to punish the country and show solidarity with Georgia's pro-American president. Pentagon sources say the White House initially considered sending a carrier group to the Black Sea, but was reminded of a 1936 convention that would prohibit that.
Pickering says the move is telling about this administration.
"It shows a mindset about Russia that tends to see it through the [neoconservative] prism of basically being a Soviet threat," Pickering says.
Pickering has encouraged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go to Russia to begin a frank dialogue. Instead, Rice has gone to Georgia, to NATO headquarters and to Poland, where she signed a missile defense deal.