Some Say Georgia Crisis May Damage Rice Legacy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) speaks with Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili after a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Aug. 19. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) speaks with Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili after a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Aug. 19.

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told CNN on Thursday that he thinks the U.S. orchestrated the crisis in Georgia to provide a diversion from the U.S. presidential campaign.

The White House was quick to dismiss Putin's comments as patently false.

This latest flap shows how low U.S.-Russia relations have sunk. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had little contact with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. With op-ed pages questioning Rice's Russia policy, one of her top aides used the State Department blog to defend her.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried wrote that Rice had helped get the French-mediated peace plan signed by Georgia, and that Rice persuaded the world community that Russia can't behave like the Soviet Union and still reap the benefits of integration into international organizations.

Asked how Rice is taking that message to Moscow, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the Russians understand the U.S. position.

"The Russians are well aware [of] what we have been saying for quite some time," Wood says. "The secretary has spoken to [Russian Foreign] Minister Lavrov. She spoke to him at least once in the last 10 days or so, and our embassy is in touch with the Russians.

Rice is said to have frosty personal relations with Lavrov. She hasn't spoken to him since Russia ignored U.S. warnings and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia early this week. She also has no plans to go to Moscow, which surprises experts like Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kuchins has noticed a lot of U.S. officials going to Georgia.

"It's been extraordinary seeing the parade — from Secretary Rice to now the plans for Dick Cheney, Cindy McCain and Joe Biden — others going to Tbilisi, and nobody going to Moscow," Kuchins says. "I find that hard to fathom."

One reason Rice might want to travel to Moscow is to try to change Russian perceptions about the U.S. role in the Georgia crisis. When Putin told CNN that he thinks the U.S. orchestrated the conflict and that U.S. citizens were in the area at the time, it was Wood — not Rice — who was out in public calling Putin's charges ludicrous.

"As we've said over and over again, Russia knows what it needs to do," Wood says. "It needs to stop blaming others for the aggression it carried out against a neighbor."

A former colleague of Rice's from Stanford University, Michael McFaul, says it was important that Rice went to Tbilisi early in this conflict, but he says shuttle diplomacy normally means talking to all the protagonists. But, he says, it looks like the U.S. does not have good lines of communication with Moscow.

"You definitely had a real drift in U.S.-Russian relations well before this Georgian crisis occurred," McFaul says. "And in fact, I think it is not unfair to say that had we been more engaged and had a more comprehensive relationship with Russia before this crisis, we might have been in a better position to help prevent it."

Now, the U.S. has found itself with little leverage, and the few things the Bush administration has accomplished with Russia are at risk, Kuchins says.

"It does look like a lot of the agreements and cooperative efforts we have worked with the Russians to achieve in recent years — they are in deep danger, including the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, including NATO-Russia cooperation, including Russia's accession to the WTO [World Trade Organization]," Kuchins says. "How far that list will go on is an open question at this point."

Kuchins says this crisis is doing serious damage to the legacy of Rice and the Bush administration policy toward Russia in general.

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