WASHINGTON—On the eve of next week's G-8 summit meeting, relations between the United States and Russia have ebbed to their lowest level since the Cold War, fueled by Moscow's growing confidence and an apparent Russian perception of U.S. weakness.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to American plans for a European-based missile-defense system by testing a new intercontinental missile, publicly blasted a U.S.-backed initiative to give independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo and frustrated American diplomatic initiatives on several fronts.
Putin, alluding to U.S. "imperialism," said Thursday that the missile test was a response to the Bush administration's plans to put a missile-defense radar and 10 interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"We are not the initiators of this new round of the arms race," Putin told a Kremlin news conference.
"Our partners are stuffing eastern Europe with new weapons," he said. "What are we supposed to do? We cannot just observe all this."
While the Russian leader is a former KGB officer and his rhetoric echoed of the Cold War, U.S. officials and analysts don't expect a return to U.S.-Russian military confrontation. But the disputes appear certain to cloud the summit of the Group of Eight leaders in Germany, in which President Bush and Putin will participate. Moreover, Russia's assertive posture poses new international headaches for Bush as his administration struggles to deal with intractable crises.
Last month Putin appeared to compare the United States to Nazi Germany, surprising and dismaying top Bush aides.
"We want a 21st-century partnership with Russia, but at times, Russia seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday in Europe, where she tangled with her Russian counterpart on missile defenses and Kosovo.
In an attempt to repair the damage, Bush issued an unusual invitation to Putin this week to join him for two days of talks in early July at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
"There's an effort to walk back from the brink on both sides," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Still, he acknowledged, "We're not going to get past the flash points so easily, because they reflect real differences."
The White House shows no signs of backing down on the missile-defense plan, which Russia regards as a major new intrusion by the West toward its borders. Bush will bookend the G-8 summit with stops in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Kosovo is an emotional issue in Russia, which has long-standing ties to Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation, and Russia's U.N. ambassador hinted Thursday that Moscow is ready to veto a U.N. independence plan for the province, which has been under international protection since 1999.
Russia's confidence, based in part on its burgeoning oil wealth, and its apparent calculation of U.S. weakness due to the Iraq war are further hurdles to repairing relations.
"The truth is that people notice when Gulliver is tied down," said Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat who's now with the U.S. Institute for Peace. "They (the Russians) have got bundles of money rolling in and they've got their historical adversary bogged down in Iraq."
Michael McFaul of Stanford University said a major reason for the growing tensions was that Putin and his lieutenants were conditioned by their careers in the Soviet secret services to view the world in black and white.
"If you are sitting in Moscow, the great power is the United States, and they see anything that is positive for us as being negative for Moscow and vice versa," he said,
McFaul said the strains with the West went beyond rhetoric to Russian arms sales to Iran and recent cyber attacks on computer systems in Estonia, a former Soviet republic that's joined the NATO alliance.
"That's not rhetoric. That's real," McFaul said. "These are very concrete policies that are threats to the United States and its allies."
He also said the shifting power balance was to blame: "We are a lot weaker and they are a lot stronger."
The Bush administration has been at pains to tell Russians that the proposed anti-missile system is meant to defend against "rogue" states such as Iran, not Russia's thousands of nuclear warheads. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Moscow in late April to give Russian officials a detailed briefing.
But James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat, said that to the Kremlin the missile-defense project "appears to be inconsistent" with assurances the United States and its allies gave Russia in the 1990s that NATO's expansion and Germany's reunification wouldn't be used to move the alliance's military capabilities toward the Russian border.
The Russians "are back," said a second State Department official, who also asked not to be identified because he isn't authorized to speak on the record. "And a lot of this has to do with a flexing of muscles that come with power. It's a different kind of power" than the Soviet Union's. "They're wealthy."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.