U.S.-Russia Relations Complicate Georgia Talks The Bush administration has accused Russia of trying to reassert its sphere of influence and says the U.S. won't tolerate it. Russia, in turn, has accused the U.S. of arming and whitewashing what it calls a "criminal regime" in Georgia.

U.S.-Russia Relations Complicate Georgia Talks

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

With its action against Georgia, Russia tried to hammer home a message it's been trying to send for years. It won't let the West ignore its interests any longer, but until now.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. didn't seem to take that message seriously enough.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Bush administration accuses Moscow of trying to reassert its sphere of influence and says the U.S. won't stand for that. Russia accuses the U.S. of arming and whitewashing what it calls a criminal regime in Georgia. A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, James Collins is worried about how the U.S. and Russia will get out of this shouting match.

Mr. JAMES COLLINS (Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia): We've had a tremendous failure of diplomacy.

KELEMEN: All sides share in the blame, he said. He believes U.S. policymakers haven't been listening to Russia and haven't come to terms with the Russia's new oil wealth and resurgence from the weak position it was in during the 1990s.

Mr. COLLINS: Unfortunately, I'm not sure that our dealings with Russia have mirrored the changes that have taken place there, and at the same time, they I think 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.

KELEMEN: 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, and the complaint list grew longer, including the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Kosovo's independence.

KELEMEN: Along the way, President Bush did get a chance to hear Russia's concerns. Right after he attended this year's NATO summit in Bucharest, where he pushed hard to put Georgia and Ukraine on track for NATO membership, President Bush went to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Then-President Vladimir Putin, speaking through an interpreter, complained about U.S. efforts to expand NATO into Russia's backyard.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) 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, 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.

KELEMEN: Putin also raised concerns about a U.S. missile-defense program utilizing Polish and Czech bases. President Bush said he felt he had a good enough relationship with Putin to talk through differences.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: A lot of times in politics, you have people look you in the eye and tell you what's not on their mind. 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.

KELEMEN: Now Putin is prime minister but playing the key role in the war in Georgia. The new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, was the man negotiating the ceasefire. Again, U.S. officials seem to be having a hard time reading the situation in Moscow. Former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Thomas Pickering, has some advice.

Mr. THOMAS PICKERING (Former Undersecretary, Political Affairs, United States Department of State): On these kinds of things, as President Kennedy did in 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. We all tend to believe still that Mr. Putin is the man who calls the main shots, even if Mr. Medvedev tends, from time to time, to look like a friendlier bear to deal with.

KELEMEN: But rather than looking for ways to work with Russia, the administration has focused on ways to punish it 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 that tells you something about this administration.

Mr. PICKERING: It shows a mindset about Russia, which tends to see it through the neocon prism of being basically still the kind of Soviet threat.

KELEMEN: He's encouraging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go to Russia to begin a frank dialogue. She's so far avoided that sort of trip, though. Instead, she's gone to Georgia, to NATO headquarters and to Poland, where she signed a missile-defense deal.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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