Rice: Russia On A Path To Isolation

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the West must stand up to Moscow. In a major speech Thursday, Rice said Russia's policies have put it on a path to isolation and irrelevance. But while the U.S. is angry with Russia's actions in Georgia, it needs Moscow for other foreign policy challenges from North Korea to Iran. Citics say the Bush admin. is leaving the next president with little leverage when dealing with Russia.


We're spending much of this morning reporting on a dramatic move by US officials. It's a proposal to take over the bad assets of Wall Street firms, and if approved by Congress, that plan would be intended to break the financial crisis that has threatened the global economy. The trouble has spread well beyond Wall Street to Asia and Europe, and no place has been hit harder than the place we're going to report on next, Russia. Russia's stock market today took the steepest fall of any major market since the financial crisis began. Authorities actually halted trading for a day and a half this week because the losses were so great. Here's the head of the Moscow stock exchange, Alexei Rybnikov.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. ALEXEI E. RYBNIKOV (Chief Executive Officer, Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange): The market went spiraling down again simply because there was panic move in the market. And I think it was quite a wise decision taken at that time to give it a break, let people breathe.

INSKEEP: And while people were breathing, Russian officials pumped billions of dollars into their markets. When the markets reopened today, they climbed so much it became a problem. They had to be shut down twice. The Bush administration says that when it comes to Russia's stock trouble, there's more to blame than just the global financial crisis. It's also because foreign investors are fleeing Russia. They're concerned about Russia's military action in Georgia. Yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the West to stand up to what she called Moscow's bullying. We have more this morning from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: This is not a new Cold War, Rice says. But Russia's actions can't go unchallenged.

(Soundbite of speech)

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State, George W. Bush Administration): We cannot afford to validate the prejudices that some Russian leaders seem to have, that if you press free nations hard enough, if you bully them and you threaten them and you lash out, they will cave in, and don't forget, and eventually they will concede.

KELEMEN: She was speaking to the German Marshall Fund, an organization that promotes transatlantic ties. And Rice often made the point that the U.S. and Europe need to act together.

Sec. RICE: Our strategic call now is to make clear to Russia's leaders that their choices could put Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.

KELEMEN: For Rice, whose academic background is in Soviet studies, this is something of a personal matter as well. That's according to Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dr. SARAH MENDELSON (Director, Human Rights and Security Initiative; Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I definitely get the feeling that she is thinking on some level about legacy. This is an area that she's devoted her life to, and the simple fact is the Bush administration has had as a very high priority spreading democracy around the world. And in the eight years that the Bush administration has been in power, democracy in Russia has unraveled.

KELEMEN: Mendelson has long argued that the U.S. wasn't paying enough attention to what was happening inside Russia, and is now leaving the next U.S. president a very complicated picture, poor relations and little leverage.

Dr. MENDELSON: In total, looking at the Bush administration's policies towards Russia, it's been pretty much of a disaster. I mean, Russia policy has really taken a backseat. It's been drifting. There has been no cohesion. You know, in any - let's be clear. It is hard to figure out what a good policy towards Russia should look like.

KELEMEN: The U.S. can't go back to its Cold War policy of containment, she says, but the efforts to integrate Russia into Western institutions have also failed, as the war in Georgia illustrated. Secretary Rice argued in her speech yesterday that the U.S. shouldn't be blamed for this. She brushed off the argument that the U.S. antagonized Russia too much by pushing for NATO expansion. And she argued that with the latest market turmoil, Russian leaders are seeing a glimpse of what the future might look like.

Sec. RICE: Russia is in a precarious position today of being half in and half out. If Russia ever wants to be more than just an energy supplier, its leaders have to recognize the hard truth. Russia depends on the world for its success, and it cannot change that.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice didn't offer any specific policies, but Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations says that wasn't the point.

Dr. STEPHEN SESTANOVICH (Senior Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations): Instead, what she gave was a broader challenge to the Russian leadership, to say to them, you know, look, why don't you get with the modern world? We are - we're already way beyond the Cold War. Why aren't you?

KELEMEN: But according to Sestanovich, a former Clinton administration official, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently complained that the Bush administration has too many Soviet-ologists (ph). And Sestanovich is not expecting U.S. officials to have too much luck talking through their differences with Russia anytime soon.

Dr. SESTANOVICH: And it may be awhile before they kind of come down from their current, you know, angry mood, and a more productive conversation can start again.

KELEMEN: The problem for Secretary Rice is that Russia is key to U.S. diplomacy on everything from Iran to North Korea. She is to see her Russian counterpart next week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. In her speech, Rice didn't offer much advice for the next U.S. administration. She said only she hopes the next president will visit Russia and give interviews to the diminished independent media. She hasn't gone to Moscow since the conflict in Georgia broke out. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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