US ready to 'push back' against Russia: official

Published: Thursday May 24, 2007

Russian limits on democracy and human rights, murders of journalists and the Kremlin's "zero-sum" approach to regional rivalries are all causing US unease, an official said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said Washington wanted to embrace Moscow as a "strong" partner, "but we push back when we must ... in defense of our values, interests and friends."

Fried's comments came a week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Moscow, agreed with Russia's President Vladimir Putin to temper each nation's recent diplomatic rhetoric.

But they made no progress on resolving security disputes poisoning relations between the two powers, including a defense missile shield that the United States wants to build in eastern Europe.

Speaking in Luxembourg Thursday, Putin said that criticism of Moscow, particularly over its human rights record, shows the West is losing the means to pressure a resurgent Russia.

But he also played down a string of Russian disagreements with the European Union, including over energy supplies and in relations with former Soviet satellites, and insisted instead on the need for dialogue and mutual respect.

Fried, however, said that Russia's relations with its neighbors "remain an issue of considerable concern."

"Moscow often still approaches its neighbors with a zero-sum mentality, particularly when it comes to those countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, which choose to pursue closer Euro-Atlantic ties," he said.

The US official spoke at a hearing held as part of the "Helsinki" process for democracy led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation on Europe (OSCE), which Putin has routinely accused of an anti-Moscow bias.

Fried underlined US-Russian cooperation against the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran -- while acknowledging Moscow's reluctance to impose tough UN sanctions -- and pointed also to joint work against global terrorism.

Russia today was "arguably freer than at any period in Russia's history," the US official said. "But it would be an insult to Russia to hold that great country to low standards."

Ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, Fried said, "the Kremlin is bringing its full weight to bear in shaping the legal and social environment to preclude a level playing field."

The official said that "suppression of genuine opposition, abridgement of the right to protest, constriction of the space of civil society, and the decline of media freedom all represent serious setbacks."

"The unsolved murders of journalists and critics are equally disturbing," Fried added, citing the "brutal" deaths of investigative reporters Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya.