Risks seen for U.S. as it freezes out Russia

Times Staff Writer

Nearly six weeks after Russia sent troops into neighboring Georgia, the Bush administration remains deeply divided over whether to retaliate against it -- and some officials fear the internal conflict is already undermining strategically important national security collaborations.

Some senior administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and some hard-liners in the Pentagon, are advocating the continuation of what they confirm has been a White House-imposed communications blackout on most dealings with Russia and a halt to nearly all bilateral initiatives on security matters.

They want to send Russia a message that the United States won’t stand for its Aug. 7 incursion through two pro-Moscow breakaway republics and into Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally. They say the sortie was only the latest in a series of hostile actions that require a wholesale recalibration of U.S. security policy, from an inclusive one that treats Moscow as an ally on global security matters to a sharply curtailed approach that considers it an untrustworthy potential enemy.


On the other side are officials at the State and Justice Departments and Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who have fought behind the scenes for a continuance and even a rededication of national security alliances with Russia. They believe such ties, particularly on joint counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts, are too important to jeopardize over the conflict in Georgia.

“Those who want to scale back are winning,” one State Department official said Wednesday, referring to those advocating the harder-line approach.

Policymakers “across the board” have been told to review U.S.-Russia alliances in response to an informal directive from President Bush “that there have to be costs for this really terrible behavior by Russia,” said a second State Department official. Those officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

Already, many U.S. diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence relationships with Russia have been suspended, along with at least one military exercise. Some hard-liners are lobbying to downscale those alliances permanently, officials say.

Most officials at the level of deputy assistant secretary and above have been told to avoid engagement with Russian counterparts except in multilateral settings like the United Nations, according to White House and State Department officials. That has effectively paralyzed the many political appointees assigned to foster existing bilateral relationships and develop new ones.

Some high-level meetings have been postponed indefinitely, including a trip to Russia by John Rood, the acting undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, to discuss various security issues and to negotiate a new pact to replace the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START.

And the congressionally appointed Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism has been asked to not go on its upcoming fact-finding visit to Moscow.

Many U.S. officials said the freeze couldn’t come at a worse time. They cite intelligence showing that the Caucasus region increasingly is becoming a crossroads for Islamic extremists, criminal mafias, black market traffickers and corrupt government officials.

“What we have done is essentially put Russia on a ‘do not communicate with, do not cooperate with’ list across the entire spectrum of relations,” said Donald Mahley, who recently retired after serving as one of the State Department’s most senior international security and nonproliferation officials. “And that puts at risk a lot of things that are important to our own national security.”

Some officials say such a hard-line posture could backfire because the reemerging superpower is key to most important U.S. security alliances. And Russia’s vast oil wealth and increasing political influence give it the ability to undermine U.S. interests globally, in part by supplying arms and nuclear assistance to unfriendly nations and blocking efforts to contain the rogue ambitions of Iran and North Korea, Mahley said.

Russia’s cooperation is needed to secure its own nuclear and chemical weapons stockpiles and those of about 20 other countries, and to prevent WMD material, technology and know-how from getting into the hands of terrorists, Mahley and other officials said.

Administration officials downplayed the potential long-term damage from the current freeze, and said the United States risked even worse consequences if it failed to think through how it would respond to Russia in unison with European allies.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration wanted to work with Russia on “important areas of cooperation” such as counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation.

But, he added, “We continue to review all our options as we assess the way forward in U.S.-Russia relations. Russia’s behavior certainly complicates diplomatic negotiations in a number of areas.”

One senior State Department nonproliferation official said it was Moscow, not Washington, “that is deciding to be uncooperative” on many counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation and military issues, such as forging closer security ties with Venezuela.

Some officials and experts agree, and say the war of words between Washington and Moscow over Georgia has done irrevocable damage to security relationships that have helped the two countries weather previous political storms.

“The environment for working relationships is being poisoned,” said one international counter-terrorism official who is in contact with leaders in both countries.

In recent weeks, some administration officials -- nonpolitical career security officials in particular -- have scrambled to keep open the lines of communication and cooperation with Russian counterparts.

Rose Goettemoeller, who heads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, said some ground-level “threat reduction” pacts between the two countries continued, but that she and other influential intermediaries feared that too could change.

“People are mad at the Russians, and they should be, for good reason,” said Goettemoeller, who was an assistant energy secretary for national security in the Clinton administration. But, she added, “Is it still in our national interest to pursue key agenda items like nonproliferation and counter-terrorism, or are we simply going to slam the door and turn out the lights? There are some people in Washington who would like to do that.”

The few U.S.-Russia bilateral meetings these days are occurring only because they are “below the radar” of hard-line administration officials, the international counter-terrorism official said.

On Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Safonov met in Germany with the State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, Dell L. Dailey, but the State Department considered it so sensitive that Dailey’s office would not even confirm the meeting.

“They don’t want it to appear that they are cooperating with the Russians . . . because they are scared that if it comes out, it will become a rallying point by the hard-liners and that they could be overruled,” he said.

Pavel Podvig, a Stanford University expert on Russia who spent a decade at the Moscow Center for Arms Control Studies, said hard-liners in Moscow were responding in kind.

“In Russia, many people are spoiling for a fight,” Podvig said. “You could easily see how these points of cooperation could die out, and that would be very unfortunate because we need to move in the other direction.”