U.S.-Russian relations reverted to their usual chilliness last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin shunned the NATO summit in Istanbul.
The no-show raised eyebrows in the West because it occurred days after Mr. Putin did a huge favor to the Bush administration. That's when he announced that he had informed the United States that Iraq was planning terrorist acts against U.S. targets before it was invaded.
Analysts are wondering if the NATO-Russia cooperation, which survived NATO's expansion to the east by including former Soviet-bloc countries and former Soviet republics earlier this year, is now in danger. Some see Mr. Putin's absence at the summit as a message to NATO that the Kremlin is not yet over its grudge over the NATO expansion.
But if that's the case, the message was a domestic one, aimed primarily at appeasing the Russian brass and the increasingly chauvinistic electorate whose low tolerance of the West got weaker last week when the war in Chechnya spilled over into the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia. That's when armed rebels seized and held for several hours the republic's police headquarters and killed scores of police before making off with huge amounts of seized weapons and ammunition.
The Kremlin habitually blamed the incident on Chechen rebels despite reports of involvement by local separatists. The continued Chechen war, in turn, is blamed on "international terrorism," which, in turn, is cast as a direct result of the U.S. support of the Israeli struggle against the Palestinians.
Instigated by the Kremlin, many Russians tend to see the United States as the main culprit behind Russia's failure to win the war in Chechnya, which has now spread beyond the borders of the secessionist province.
Attending the NATO summit would have weakened Mr. Putin in the eyes of his loyalists. Russians like a strong leader, and his attending the NATO summit would start some to wonder if he is going soft.
Moreover, showing up at the summit would put Mr. Putin at risk of taking direct criticism of manhandling the Ingush and Chechen civilians where Russian troops have conducted infamous "mopping up" operations, detaining hundreds, if not thousands of civilians. The fate of some of the missing from Ingushetia and Chechnya is unknown.
Recent commentaries by Russia military experts and lawmakers call the NATO expansion nothing less than a humiliation to all Russians. Even more disturbing is that some all but blame the United States for the prolonged Chechen war and its spillage into the neighboring province.
"The situation in the Caucasus may become a threat to the national interest of Russia," writes Col. Gen. Victor Zavarzin, chairman of the Duma defense commission in the Russian Military Review. "Indeed, the concentration of financial and economic interests of the United States and the leading European states in this region and their attempts to establish their long-term dominance in this region are obvious."
As usual, the Kremlin is using the West in general and the United States in particular as scapegoats to justify its own failures.
By doing so, Russia is reverting to the road of isolationism. This is the road that once led the U.S.S.R. to disintegration and is now leading Russia the same way.
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