Panel urges new Russia policy

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration should stop pretending Russia is a genuine strategic partner and adopt a new policy of “selective cooperation” and “selective opposition” to the authoritarian government of President Vladimir Putin, a bipartisan task force has concluded.

In a grim assessment of the recent “downward trajectory” under Putin, the Council of Foreign Relations reports that in Russia democracy is in retreat, corruption is on the rise and the Kremlin is an increasing obstacle to U.S. interests. The good will that developed between President Bush and Putin, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has eroded.

“Russian-American relations are clearly headed in the wrong direction,” the task force wrote. “Contention is crowding out consensus. The very idea of ‘strategic partnership’ no longer seems realistic.”

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who was a co-chairman of the task force along with Republican former housing secretary Jack Kemp, said the administration has shied away from addressing Putin’s behavior. “What they’ve done is focused on the positive things Russia is doing and been soft on the problems,” he said, adding, “We need for the world to see what’s happening inside, and at a minimum Putin needs to feel the pressure from that.”

The report crystallizes a growing reassessment of Russia in Washington five years after Bush first met Putin and “looked into his soul,” as the president put it at the time. Rather than champion democracy and Western values, the former KGB colonel has moved to reassert control over Russian society and eliminate opposition.

Administration officials have been disturbed by other actions in recent months, including Russian maneuvering to force U.S. troops out of central Asia, Moscow’s use of energy exports as a weapon against smaller neighbors, and Putin’s outreach to Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that just won parliamentary elections.

At the same time, Moscow has moved closer to Washington in the effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Once considered a virtual accessory to Tehran’s alleged nuclear arms program, Russia lately has turned around and collaborated with the Bush administration to pressure the Islamic state to renounce any such ambitions, although the Kremlin still resists sanctions.

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