( The Washington Post ) - Nearly two years ago, President Bush decided to open a new era of civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia. The two governments negotiated an agreement and initialed it just days before President Vladimir Putin went fishing with Bush last summer at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
But eight months have passed since then, and the initialed agreement remains without final signatures. A senior Russian official came here last month for what some thought would be a signing ceremony, only to have the administration pull back. Now the nuclear pact, once a symbol of closer U.S.-Russian ties, has stalled amid a quiet struggle in Washington over whether to trust Moscow.
The relationship between the United States and Russia has entered a period of suspended animation as Bush and his would-be successors try to figure out what to make of the emerging leadership structure in Moscow and how to defuse rising tension. Russians go to the polls Sunday to ratify Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and yet Putin plans to keep power in at least some form by becoming prime minister.
Washington's estrangement from the Kremlin became evident this week as Bush and both remaining Democratic presidential candidates publicly expressed uncertainty about the would-be Russian leader. Asked to name him during a presidential debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., stumbled over the pronunciation. "Um, Med-Medvedova - whatever," she finally said, mangling the name in a way that, in Russian, would identify the new president as a woman.
Bush the next day had the name down, but by his own admission, not much else. "I don't know much about Medvedev, either," he said at a news conference. "And what will be interesting to see is who comes to the - who represents Russia at the G-8, for example. ... It will help, I think, give some insight as to how Russia intends to conduct foreign policy after Vladimir Putin's presidency. And I can't answer the question yet."
The leadership transitions in both countries are playing out against a backdrop of deepening suspicion in the two capitals. Moscow fumed when Washington recognized Kosovo's independence last week and again when Bush met with the Czech prime minister to discuss stationing a U.S. missile defense system in that Eastern European country. Russia has been extending its military reach with long-distance air and naval operations. Two Russian bombers buzzed the USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean last weekend, prompting U.S. fighter jets to intercept them; U.S. officials report eight similar incidents off Alaska since July.
The prospect that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia might join NATO someday so angered Putin recently that he threatened to target nuclear missiles at Kiev if it become part of the Western military alliance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded unusually forcefully, declaring that the "reprehensible rhetoric that is coming out of Moscow is unacceptable."
Bush has not given up trying to work with Russia in his final year in office. He met at the White House in January with a group of prominent U.S. and Russian figures, led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who are trying to bridge the divide between the two capitals. And he expects to meet with Putin next month in Bucharest, Romania, at a NATO summit, the first attended by the Russian leader in six years.
"I'm going to try to leave it so whoever my successor is will be able to have a relationship with whoever is running foreign policy in Russia. It's in the country's interest," Bush said. "That doesn't mean we have to agree all the time. I mean, obviously we didn't agree on Kosovo. There will be other areas where we don't agree. And yet it is in the interest of the country to have a relationship, leader to leader, and hopefully beyond that."
But the window for progress on Bush's watch appears to be closing. U.S. officials remain frustrated with Russia's resistance to tough new sanctions against Iran for continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. Russians remain frustrated with Bush's insistence on deploying missile defense units in Poland and the Czech Republic, with nothing coming of Putin's offer last year to collaborate on a defensive system instead.
Many Russian experts expect Medvedev, if he indeed represents Russia at the G-8 or other international forums after being inaugurated in May, to brush off Bush much as a newly elected Putin brushed off Bill Clinton in the final months of that U.S. administration in 2000. Clinton later complained that he had been snubbed, and relations essentially froze until Bush first met Putin in June 2001.
"If you're Dmitry Medvedev, what kind of relationship with George Bush would you think is worth establishing?" asked Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador to ex-Soviet states under Clinton. "It isn't just that he's looking ahead to the next presidency. It's that the relationship has so completely lost lift and content that you need new ways of validating it."
All three of the major remaining presidential candidates in the United States have talked tough on Russia and criticized Bush for treating Putin too softly as he consolidated power and squelched opposition at home. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for throwing Russia out of the G-8, although Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have not gone that far.
The nuclear agreement offers a case study in the frustrations of those trying to find that lift and content that Sestanovich said is missing. Bush announced during a visit to St. Petersburg in July 2005 that he had decided to permit extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia for the first time, reversing decades of bipartisan foreign policy. The two sides then entered into negotiations for the formal pact required by U.S. law known as a "123 agreement."
Such an agreement would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world, a lucrative business for Moscow. The White House hoped to use the agreement as an incentive to win more Russian cooperation on Iran and to help advance Bush's plan to spread civilian nuclear energy to power-hungry countries that could send the used radioactive material to Russia.
It took a year to draft the agreement. Senior U.S. and Russian officials initialed it just before Putin's visit last July to Kennebunkport, hailing it as a sign that the two sides could still cooperate despite tensions. But finalizing it has become an ordeal because it requires a formal U.S. assessment of Russia's nuclear ties to Iran.
U.S. officials thought they had worked out the remaining details, and Sergei Kiriyenko, a former Russian prime minister overseeing the issue, traveled to Washington last month. But under pressure from skeptics in Congress, the administration declared even before Kiriyenko arrived that the agreement was not ready. Instead, Kiriyenko signed a less significant deal on uranium.
"By treating the 123 agreement as some kind of undeserved `gift' to a naughty Russia, Congress is stymieing cooperation with Russia on nuclear energy that is fully in the U.S. interest," said Rose Gottemoeller, a former Energy Department official who now heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. "I recognize, though, that the dynamics are bad right now. ... But we're running out of time before the end of the administration."
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House still hopes to complete the agreement but still needs more information from Moscow. "We definitely want to get this done sooner rather than later," the official said. "A lot will depend on what we get back from them."