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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Relations Under Scrutiny in Washington

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is quietly exploring ways of recalibrating its policy toward Russia in the face of growing concerns about the Kremlin's crackdown on internal dissent and pressure tactics toward its neighbors, according to senior officials and others briefed on the discussions.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has grown increasingly skeptical of President Vladimir Putin and has shown interest in toughening the U.S. administration's approach. He summoned Russia scholars to his office last month to solicit input and asked national intelligence director John Negroponte to provide further information about Putin's trajectory, the sources said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has sought to balance worries over Russian democracy with a pragmatic partnership on mutual issues such as Iran's nuclear program, responded by calling her own meeting with outside advisers a week ago. Some involved in the administration deliberations saw the move as an attempt to counter Cheney. Senior officials deny any split but describe the views of Cheney and Rice in different terms.

"He's basically in the more critical camp," said one person familiar with the vice president's thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. "You have this tension between the Putin lovers and the democracy lovers in the administration. And the president himself and Condi seem to be balancing between these forces."

The fresh interest stems from the fact that Russia for the first time will host the annual summit of the Group of Eight powers this year. The G8 is supposed to be a club of the world's leading industrial democracies, but by standard measurements, Russia is neither a leading economy or democracy. It has an economy the size of the Netherlands', and the Kremlin has taken over independent television, canceled the election of governors and otherwise stifled opposition.

Critics charge that Putin's leadership of the G8 summit makes a mockery of the organization, and some, such as Senator John McCain, have called for the United States to boycott. Like their Washington counterparts, officials in London, Paris and Berlin worry the St. Petersburg summit in July will prove an embarrassment and are conferring about how to avoid appearing to endorse Putin's leadership.

"The G8 summit in St. Petersburg is becoming the focal point for everybody to reconsider where we are in terms of Russia," said Anders Aslund, a Russia specialist at the Institute for International Economics who was among those who briefed Cheney last month. "Is this really where we want to be? Should we change policy?"

Andrew Kuchins, until recently director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the administration appeared uncertain.

"One can see there is tension within the administration about what to do with Russia," said Kuchins, who participated in the meeting with Rice a week ago. "On the one side are those who want to build a constructive relationship. ... And then there are those who are looking at Russia with much greater concern about where Russia is going."

The opposite poles within the administration on Russia policy traditionally have been Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, who is seen as more critical of Moscow, and Thomas Graham, the senior director for Russia affairs at the National Security Council, who advocates a closer partnership.

Cheney has weighed in, but it is not clear whether he has recommended specific actions. "They argue for a kind of realism about the problem," a senior official said of the vice president's office.

Rice agrees about the problem but wants to be frank without being hostile. "Rice is well equipped to hold that kind of middle ground about Russia," the official said.

Administration spokesmen declined to comment on the record about internal deliberations.

Another person close to the discussions said Rice, a Russia scholar, privately believes that pushing Putin too hard on democracy would be counterproductive, and views the issue as a distraction from higher priorities. "You get the impression it was annoyance more than anything else -- 'we got so many other things to think about, we don't need this,'" the person said.

The administration is boxed in partly because of President George W. Bush's enthusiastic embrace of Putin when they met in 2001 and the U.S. president declared he had gotten a sense of the Russian leader's soul. Although Bush has since taken a less sanguine view, he has been unwilling to abandon Putin, especially after Russia allowed U.S. forces into Central Asia following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The pressure on the administration will grow as the summit approaches. A Council on Foreign Relations task force led by two former vice presidential nominees, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat John Edwards, plans to issue a critical report on Russia next month. At the same time, Bush needs Putin's help at the UN Security Council next month when it takes up Iran's nuclear program, and aides believe Moscow has been a constructive partner on this issue.

Russia has exacerbated concerns with recent actions. The Kremlin enacted a law restricting nongovernmental organizations, closed some human rights groups and accused others of being fronts for foreign spies. Moscow also briefly cut off natural gas to Ukraine in a politically charged dispute that alarmed the rest of Europe, which gets one-quarter of its gas from Russia.

Rice spoke out against those moves but has also tried to temper the criticism. On CBS television's "Face the Nation" two weeks ago, she called the NGO law and the energy pressure "a problem" while saying that the United States and Russia had "probably the best relations" they have had in a long time.

Other administration officials have been sharper in public comments lately. Negroponte told Congress that Putin's actions suggest that "Russia could become a more inward-looking and difficult interlocutor for the United States over the next several years."

In separate testimony, Fried warned that Russia is "backsliding on democracy."

Yet Bush in his budget this month proposed further slashing money for democracy programs in Russia, from $44.2 million to $31.6 million, while canceling Voice of America's Russian-language radio programming that for decades promoted Western values in Russia.

Putin has rejected criticism from the West in tough terms, dismissing it as a Cold War mentality. "There are devoted Sovietologists who do not understand what is happening in our country, do not understand the changing world," Putin said at a news conference last month. "They deserve a very brief response: 'To hell with you.'"

As U.S. and European officials consider what to do, they find few attractive options. None of the G8 members plans to boycott the summit, but in preliminary meetings envoys in Moscow have been pushing Russia to recognize its image problem in the West and make the St. Petersburg gathering meaningful.

Russia has set energy security as the theme of the summit, a choice seen as ironic in Europe, given the gas dispute with Ukraine. France wants to pressure Moscow to finally ratify the Energy Charter Treaty of 1994, a set of binding rules governing energy cooperation, including guaranteeing freedom of energy transit through pipelines.

In Washington, U.S. officials are discussing ways of expressing concerns about Russian democracy in advance of the summit. Among the possibilities: a comprehensive and blunt speech by a senior official, possibly Rice, laying out more explicitly the U.S. view of Russia's direction. Or perhaps a gathering of human rights, democracy and other civil society groups either inside Russia or outside the country to showcase U.S. support for those under pressure from the Kremlin.

Aslund suggested the other seven leaders of the G8 meet elsewhere in Europe without Putin before the summit to demonstrate concern over Russia. "The U.S. administration is thinking that it needs to do something," he said, "but it doesn't know what yet."