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An increasingly confident Russia poses problems for U.S.

MOSCOW—Five years ago, President Bush looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and thought he got "a sense of his soul."

But Putin turned out to be less a soul mate than a traditional autocratic Russian leader.

Now, buoyed by billions of dollars in oil and natural gas surging through its pipelines each month, and rushing to leave behind 15 years of post-Soviet purgatory, Russia increasingly is trying to reclaim its status as a great power—and a rival to the United States.

On issues from energy to democracy, from Iran's nuclear program and North Korea's missile launches to the political path of Russia's former empire, that probably means a rougher ride ahead for Bush and the United States, said government advisers and analysts in Moscow and Washington.

Putin and his Kremlin aides, who've eliminated all serious political opposition, are using the geopolitical muscle that comes with being the world's No. 2 oil exporter.

Russia "was obedient" under Boris Yeltsin, but "that era is finished," said Nodari Simonia, an academic at the government-funded Institute of World Economy and International Relations and a onetime Putin representative to the Group of Eight countries.

Bush visits Russia this week to attend the G-8 summit Saturday through next Monday in St. Petersburg. Russia is hosting the Group of Eight for the first time, and Putin intends to use it to showcase the country's reclaimed world status.

The Foreign Policy Centre, an independent British policy-research group, said in a report last month that Russia didn't meet the standards of an open economy and free society for inclusion in the group of rich, industrialized democracies.

Several members of Congress called on Bush to boycott this year's session to protest Putin's crackdown on political and press freedoms.

In recent years, Putin has eliminated the independence of Russia's governors and weakened the lower house of parliament, the Duma, by enacting laws that discourage true opposition parties and favor the Kremlin-controlled United Russia faction. The government took over the only independent TV station, NTV. It has harassed and jailed businessmen who could be political rivals, such as Mikhail Khordokovsky of the Yukos oil company, who sits in a Siberian prison on tax charges.

Russians enjoy pointing out that Putin's popularity rating, at about 70 percent, is roughly twice Bush's. Thanks to $70-a-barrel oil, the Kremlin sits on a rainy day "stabilization fund" estimated at more than $60 billion, plus an additional $225 billion in hard currency reserves.

The skyline encircling Moscow's city center is streaked with construction cranes. Down on the sidewalks, tote boards at currency-exchange shops show the ruble's rise against the dollar.

The confidence that accompanies Russia's economic success was on display in May, when Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the country's democratic reversals and use of energy as a weapon to intimidate neighbors.

Putin angrily rejected the critique. Referring to the United States as "Comrade Wolf," he retorted: "Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests?"

The Russian leader and his advisers "just feel they don't need to take lectures anymore. They can lecture (others) themselves," said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy expert who's close to the Kremlin.

Frolov confirmed Putin's intention to reverse what Russians see as Western encroachment on their borders. "There is a feeling (in the Kremlin) that the time has come for Russia to reassert itself in the former Soviet space, not in security terms but in economic terms," he said.

No one is forecasting a new Cold War. The two countries cooperate daily on issues ranging from securing the former Soviet Union's excess fissile material to exploring space. But the idea that the two countries might form a deep strategic partnership, which seemed possible when Putin rallied to Bush's side after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, appears naive in retrospect.

In May 2002, when Bush and Putin met in Moscow to sign an arms reduction accord, they also pledged cooperation on more than a dozen other fronts. Many of those pledges have gone unfulfilled.

A June poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center found that over the last year the United States dropped from 8th to 16th on a list of countries that Russians consider their closest friends.

In the United States, a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations concluded this spring that "in many areas, American-Russian relations are a disappointment." It recommended that the United States pursue "selective cooperation" with Russia because a broader partnership "is not now feasible."

U.S. officials acknowledge that differences over the Iraq war played a role in cooling relations. But they tend to blame the downturn on Putin's actions.

Russian analysts blame the United States and Europe.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, they say, the West extracted concession after concession from Moscow but never gave Russia full membership in NATO or other guarantees it wanted.

Bush and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert, came to office determined to make Russia a lower priority.

"The resentment in Russia was (over) not being taken seriously by the Bush administration. It wanted to be taken seriously," said Frolov, the foreign policy consultant.

After Bush achieved his objectives of withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and expanding NATO to include the Baltic nations, his administration "sort of drifted," Frolov said.

Bush and Rice have been criticized at home for not reacting more swiftly when Putin started reversing Russia's democratic trend. At the same time, they haven't received full cooperation from Moscow on such issues as Iran. Russia remains leery of imposing tough sanctions on Tehran if it refuses to stop enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear arms.

Still, it's not clear that more U.S. criticism would matter.

Polls show that for the vast majority of Russians, who expect little of their politicians, political trends at home aren't a major issue. Putin, who hopes to engineer a smooth transition to a handpicked successor in 2008, is likely to keep a tight grip on politics in the months ahead.

Yeltsin and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, both still widely admired in the West for their role in ending Soviet communism, get single-digit approval ratings in Russia. Murderous Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is more admired.

Yeltsin and Gorbachev are "negative heroes," seen as responsible for the country's humiliation, pollster Yuri Levada said.

Russia's suspicion of outsiders also fuels prickliness toward the West. "It is (a) Russian habit to see ourselves as if we are living inside a circle of enemies," Levada said.

The volatile mix of confidence and nationalism rises to the surface when it comes to Russia's energy resources. Oil, gas and other natural resources account for two-thirds of the country's export earnings.

In January, state-controlled Gazprom cut natural-gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute, triggering brief shortages across Western Europe. The action rang alarms that Russia intends to use energy as a foreign-policy weapon to punish neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia, that seek closer ties to the West.

At the G-8 summit, Europe and the United States are seeking energy-supply guarantees, which Russia has resisted.

Analysts such as Simonia take umbrage at the idea that Russia should be treated as though it simply sells its commodities and has no say in what happens next.

"We are not Nigeria. We are not some other developing countries," said Simonia, an energy expert who formerly advised Gazprom.

Putin is ready for international energy cooperation, "but at the same time, we want to defend our national interests," Simonia said. That means access to cutting-edge Western technology to extract hard-to-get-to oil and gas deposits, and a role in U.S. and European petroleum refining and retail markets.

"Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system: very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it," Dmitri Trenin, the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. "Now it has left that orbit entirely: Russia's leaders have given up becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centered system."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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