ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Vladimir Putin told CNN today that he thinks the United States provoked the crisis in Georgia in order to provide what he called a competitive advantage for one of the presidential candidates. The White House swiftly dismissed Putin's comments as false.

This latest flap shows how far U.S.-Russian relations have sunk. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had little contact with her Russian counterpart in the course of the conflict with Georgia. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on Rice's role and how she is being tested in a region that was her area of expertise as an academic.

MICHELE KELEMEN: 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 she had helped get the French-mediated peace plan signed by Georgia and that Russia 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 the secretary is taking that message to Moscow, spokesman Robert Wood said the Russians understand the U.S. position.

KELEMEN: The Russians are well aware of what we've been saying for quite some time. The secretary has spoken to Minister Lavrov; she spoke to him at least once, I think, in the last 10 days or so, and our embassy is in touch with the Russians.

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

KELEMEN: It's been extraordinary seeing the parade, of Secretary Rice to now the plans for Dick Cheney and Cindy McCain and Joe Biden and others going to Tbilisi, but nobody going to Moscow. I find that hard to fathom.

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

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

KELEMEN: A former colleague of Secretary Rice 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. And he says it looks like the U.S. does not have good lines of communication to Moscow.

KELEMEN: You definitely have a real drift in U.S.-Russian relations well before this Georgian crisis occurred. And in fact, I think it's 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.

KELEMEN: Now the U.S. has found itself with little leverage, and the few things that the Bush administration has accomplished with Russia are at risk, according to Andrew Kuchins of CSIS.

KELEMEN: It does look like a lot of the agreements and cooperative efforts that we worked with the Russians to achieve in recent years, they're in deep danger, including the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, including NATO- Russia cooperation, including Russia's accession to the WTO. How far that list will go on is an open question at this point.

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

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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