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Russia's Relations with West Chilled Under Putin

During his eight years as president, Vladimir Putin put oil-rich Russia back on the world stage.

Some observers had hoped that Putin would try to integrate Russia with the Western community of nations. But instead, he has crafted a foreign policy that's taken a confrontational attitude to the West.

Although Russian relations with Western powers were far from problem-free in the 1990s, both sides wanted to put the Cold War behind them after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But no one could have predicted just how confrontational the rhetoric would get under Putin.

Growing Level of Confrontation

Last year, Putin attacked the United States by saying it had committed crimes worse than those under the Soviet Union.

"We didn't spray thousands of miles with chemicals," he said, "or drop seven times more bombs than used in World War II on a small country like Vietnam."

Putin has been able to reassert some of Moscow's power in the world in part because of skyrocketing prices for Russia's top exports — oil and natural gas.

He has chosen to build that influence by confronting the West. Putin has led criticism of the war in Iraq, as well as independence for Kosovo. And he has even threatened to direct nuclear missiles at Europe if the United States installs parts of a proposed missile defense system there — a plan Putin said would threaten Russian security.

"We didn't start this new arms race in Europe," Putin said, adding that the plan would potentially "change the entire configuration of international security."

Dealing with the Former Soviet Republics

Russia's image has been tarnished abroad by what many say is the harassment of former Soviet republics.

Moscow temporarily shut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006, and it later enacted a trade embargo against Georgia. Russia has accused the West of meddling in both countries by helping stage "color revolutions" against their pro-Moscow regimes.

William Burns has been U.S. Ambassador to Russia while relations sank to their lowest level since the Cold War. But Burns, who is awaiting Senate confirmation to the No. 3 post at the State Department, says that the way Moscow defines what it stands for is more important than its opposition to Western policies.

"The legacy of the last eight years in Russian foreign policy is still being shaped," Burns says. "And it's going to depend a lot on the answer that Russians provide to the question about what it's going to do with that influence in the years ahead."

Relations Moving Forward

Burns says the top concern in U.S.-Russia relations is nuclear security. Next year, the START nuclear treaty is set to expire, ending the last strategic arms agreement in place between the two countries.

But there's been no sign Moscow will change course under Putin's successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who has said he'll hew to his mentor's foreign policy.

Opposition leader Garry Kasparov says the West doesn't understand the Kremlin's foreign policy because of a fundamental difference in ideology. He says the Kremlin believes that values such as democracy and free speech are "just empty words."

"They think that these democratic elements are always used by the United States and the West as the tools to promote their agenda," Kasparov says.

This year's Europe Day parade on Red Square will feature Putin, as it has in years past. But this time he'll be appearing not as president but as prime minister and leader of the country's biggest political party — positions many believe will give him continuing influence on Russia's foreign policy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.