US-Russia Relations Cold War Tension, Reloaded

George W. Bush once thought he could look into Vladimir Putin's eyes and see his soul. But now that the Russian leader has tightened his grip on power, the strained friendship between these two major statesmen could turn to outright enmity. The conflict over Iran is just one example.

By in Washington

Bush used to think Putin "was one of the good guys."

Bush used to think Putin "was one of the good guys."

Senator John McCain spoke in a low voice, as he often does at campaign appearances. The Republican presidential hopeful had just discussed Iran, and now it was time to say a word or two about Russia. "When I looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes," he told the audience in a conspiratorial whisper, "I saw three things: a K and a G and a B."

On Wednesday, at a White House press conference with George W. Bush, a reporter asked the president what he thought of McCain's words. "Pretty good line," said Bush with a chuckle -- and threw some more rhetorical coal on the fire. He said Putin was "wily" over the question of who might succeed him at the Kremlin. "He wouldn't tip his hand."

Bush had just used unusually hawkish words at this press conference to describe the nuclear tension with Iran. Clearly referring to Putin, Bush had told reporters, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing Iran from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

That reference to "World War III" was reminiscent of earlier presidential rhetoric like "The Axis of Evil" (Bush, 2002) and "The Evil Empire" (Reagan, 1983). The choice of words reflected a deep chill in US-Russian relations -- and differences over Iran are not the only reason for the falling out.

"The relationship is really shaken. Both sides appear determined to verbally assault each other as often as possible over the coming months," says Rose Gottemoeller, Director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Exchanging snide remarks

The conflict has been brewing for months now. Sometimes Putin just denounces American abuses of power -- as he did in Munich last February -- and sometimes he compares the US under Bush to Nazi Germany under Hitler. Last week, he kept US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waiting for a full 45 minutes in Moscow, then cracked jokes about the possibility of a joint missile defense system on the moon.

For their part, the Americans never miss an opportunity to brand Putin's Russia as undemocratic. In May 2006, US Vice President Dick Cheney took Putin severely to task when he accused the Russian government of using gas and oil as a means of blackmailing its neighbors. Now Bush has gone a step further. Since Putin won't fully cooperate with the US on Iran, the president has warned of the danger of a third world war.

But the conflict over Iran is only one bone of contention in this complex relationship. It seems unlikely, for example, that Putin visited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week just to provoke the Americans.

"The Russians have been basically pursuing their own agenda here," says Gottemoeller. "The visit fits with their efforts to enhance their role as a world power." But she believes Putin made a strategic error in his remarks on Iran's right to develop a civil nuclear program. "He wanted to be warmly welcomed in Tehran and that's why he made those statements. Now he has to deal with a long-term dilemma because the Iranians will expect support from him on this issue."

But Iran is Still a Threat

In fact, Moscow still seems to want Iran to cooperate with the Europeans and the Americans. Before his trip to Tehran, it should not be forgotten, he did meet both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Condoleezza Rice to discuss a suitable approach.

Gottemoeller is organizing a major conference on Iran in Moscow, and after speaking with journalists and government officials she believes Russia still sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat.

Bush also acts as if he can still work with Russia on Iran. At his bellicose press conference, he did not flatly condemn Putin's visit to Tehran -- but said he preferred to wait until he had heard his report. Bush openly voiced his hope that Washington and Moscow could continue to cooperate.

Many experts also see a similar exaggerated level of concern with regard to a declaration recently made by five states in the Caspian region. One principle of this declaration is that signatories will not allow other countries to use their soil for acts of aggression against any other Caspian state -- including Iran. The agreement has been read as an escalation between the US and Russia, in part because the US has maintained close relations with Azerbaijan and may want to use air bases there.

"I don't find this declaration all that surprising," said Richard Morningstar, a former special envoy for the region under President Bill Clinton and now a lecturer at Harvard. "Would the US use Azeri bases if it wanted to launch missions against Iran? Probably not," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Has Russia been trying to expand its influence in the region? Yes. Do these countries meet on a regular basis? Yes. Do the Americans understand this? Of course. These are Russia's neighbors, after all."


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