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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Relations With U.S. Lowest in 20 Years

U.S.-Russia relations appear to have sunk to their lowest level since Mikhail Gorbachev was Soviet leader.

Weeks before the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg squabbles loom on every front, from the summit's agenda to geopolitical standoffs over the former Soviet space and the Middle East.

The summit that had been intended to herald Russia's reemergence as a major global player could turn into a diplomatic debacle.

"The question is, how acrimonious is it going to get?" said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, who has briefed the U.S. administration on Russia policy. "The question is, what can they talk about when Russia is systematically blocking the United States in Georgia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. If you're fighting on all these fronts, why pretend you're friends?'

The tense relations stand in stark contrast to those in 2002, when President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush met and declared they were strategic partners. Putin had given the nod for the United States to use military bases in Central Asia as a platform for war in Afghanistan and the two leaders pledged their common allegiance in the war against terrorism.

Now, armed with an immense war chest of cash reaped from high oil prices, a newly assertive Russia is reestablishing its influence in Central Asia as the U.S. military sees its influence wane there, and Moscow seeks to coax Ukraine back into the fold using gas prices as leverage.

As Putin takes back control of the energy sector and cracks down on domestic opposition, his administration has in recent months cranked up rhetoric against the West while pressing ahead with sales of air-defense missiles to Iran.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which he criticized Russia for reversing democratic freedoms, was the first public utterance of frustration from a senior White House official. It was part of a dawning realization that Russia, for the first time in 20 years, no longer appears to be seeking to align itself with the West, analysts said.

"For nearly two decades, there was this notion that, slowly, Russia was integrating into the West," said Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Washington think tank. "There was this notion that, starting with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [President Boris] Yeltsin, there was a strategic decision that Russia needs integration with the West. Even when there was conflict over Iraq in 2003, that basic trajectory was the same. Russia is no longer doing that at all."

The only surprising thing about Cheney's speech, in which he lashed out at Russia for reversing democratic reforms and for engaging in "energy blackmail," was that no one that senior from the U.S. administration had put things so bluntly before, analysts said.

Putin's former economic adviser Andrei Illarionov said in a recent interview that the Kremlin made the rift clear earlier this year, when it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine amid a price dispute. In March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drove home the message in an article in Moskovskiye Novosti, in which he said Russia was no longer aligning itself with the West

Last week, Putin underlined the mood in his state-of-the-nation address, in which he called for a military buildup to counter the might of "Comrade Wolf, ... who is not about to listen to anyone," and said "it is too early to speak of an end to the arms race."

"Most conspicuous is that there was no mention of the G8," Aslund said of Putin's address. "This is because there is nothing to say. It was a speech straight out of the 1930s: More babies, more guns."

A leading member of the liberal Yabloko party, Andrei Piontkovsky, said Putin made the shift clear in the first speech he gave following the September 2004 Beslan school seizure.

In a televised address to the nation, Putin said that efforts to "tear off a big chunk of our country" were being assisted by those who "think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated."

Putin did not say what countries he was referring to, but he appeared to have Western countries in mind.

Despite the concerns over Russia's direction, Cheney made clear in his Vilnius speech that the United States hoped trends in Russia could be turned around. Calling for Russia to align itself with the West, he said Russia was "not doomed to be an enemy."

"You wouldn't have even had to utter those words 10 years ago," McFaul said. Even during a standoff between Russia and the United States over the NATO campaign in Kosovo, Yeltsin called Clinton up "in tears" to say, "You can't let this incident screw up what we're trying to achieve," McFaul said.

Another glaring difference was the furor in the Russian media over a Washington Post report that Cheney had met with an unidentified "leading Russian democrat." According to McFaul, who helped arrange the meeting, the politician was independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.

"Does anyone remember anyone who [former Vice President] Al Gore met with? Ryzhkov is an MP, for God's sakes. He's meeting the VP. Somehow now that casts him as a traitor and people start blaming him for Cheney's speech."

"In fact, Ryzhkov was pushing for constructive engagement," he said. When reached by telephone Thursday, Ryzhkov confirmed he met with Cheney, but declined to comment on the meeting.

As Putin presses ahead with plans for a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a summit in Shanghai, China, next month amid a standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, tensions could mount further. And as oil prices continue to soar, energy security still looms large.

Russia appeared to be raising the stakes this week when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow could fight what it saw as "discriminatory measures" over Russia's World Trade Organization bid with new conditions for the participation of foreign companies in the vast Shtokman gas field.

The new dynamic is due not just to Russia's new oil wealth, but also to the mindset of its leader, McFaul said. "Putin is a classic realist thinker about geopolitics. Nobody would expect anything else given his background and training. He sees the world in zero-sum terms," McFaul said.

While Putin's war of words with the West also help him justify a crackdown on opposition at home by creating the image of a nation under siege, the Bush administration's concerns over reversals of freedom may be a little nuanced too, McFaul said.

"Whatever the rhetoric, there are a lot of people in the Bush administration who don't care about democracy, liberty and freedom, they care about other things," he said. "It's important to realize that Russia is not doing much for the U.S. national interest."

It is double standards like this, best illustrated by Cheney's praise for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev one day after lashing out at Putin over democracy, that are nettling the Kremlin.

While stressing that Moscow was not seeking to stoke confrontation, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said by telephone Thursday that Russia should be considered a force to be reckoned with.

"Russia is a very strong, influential state and cannot stay indifferent" to U.S. moves to disturb the military balance, such as creating a missile defense shield and talking about the use of intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry non-nuclear warheads, Peskov said.

"We cannot not take measures to balance the situation," Peskov said. "But this is not confrontation."

"It is completely normal that there are a series of questions that we cannot agree on. There are the same questions between member states of the European Union and between the EU and the United States. But this does not mean that these countries are heading on a path of confrontation," he said.

"There is no need to dramatize the situation."

Other analysts said it looked likely the rhetorical outbursts would die down ahead of the summit. "These exchanges are part of the jockeying for position ahead of the summit," said Nikolai Petrov, scholar-in-residence at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "By the time the summit comes around, agreement will have been reached."