PARIS (by columnist Angela Charlton for RIA Novosti) - Before visiting Moscow this week, Condoleezza Rice let loose a litany of complaints about Vladimir Putin's Russia.
But she kept a diplomat's cool during her two-day trip, focusing on security cooperation and swallowing criticism of the Kremlin's "managed democracy."
She left Moscow after her first visit as U.S. secretary of state on good terms - but then headed to a NATO meeting in Lithuania, where Russia was a peripheral and often-resented presence.
It's no wonder Russians complain about mixed signals from Washington. This waffling, between public beratement of Putin for squeezing the opposition and public praise for Russia's anti-terrorism activity, ultimately supports the status quo. This is just what Putin wants - he said himself at his meeting Wednesday with Rice that he hopes relations stay exactly as they are. And despite talk of Russia being a test case for U.S. President George W. Bush's democracy-spreading global agenda, the status quo seems to suit Bush fine for now, too.
While this cloudy U.S. policy satisfies Putin and Bush, it leaves everyone else in the cold: The hard-liners in Washington who want Putin punished for restricting democracy, the U.S. oil majors who want close relations with Putin to boost their investment prospects, the democracy activists in Russia, and the Russian hawks who want the United States out of their kitchen and their backyard.
Rice may have considered it a bold move to speak during her visit on Ekho Moskvy radio, one of Russia's biggest anti-Kremlin media sources. But even in this forum her words were cautious and largely positive. Perhaps sensing the disappointment of the show's editors, who were expecting a more feisty guest, she mentioned the importance of a free media in supporting democracy. Her lackluster defense of Russia's independent media voices rang hollow amid news that Ren-TV, one of Russia's remaining big private television stations, is likely to be bought out by a state-controlled bank.
Even on the touchy subject of Iran, Rice had only good things to say. Instead of stressing U.S. concerns about Iran's ties to terrorism and its nuclear agenda, she praised Russian officials for persuading Iran to return spent fuel from the Bushehr nuclear power plant being constructed by Russian companies.
Rice's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, was more acerbic in his comments after their meeting. He responded to Rice's mild criticism of Putin's concentration of power with an attack on U.S. unilateralism. "We want the U.S. to be powerful and democratic and cooperate with other states in the world, observing international law," he told reporters.
Despite hope among many U.S. officials that Russia could be ripe for a revolution like those that gripped Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Rice avoided any suggestion of regime change in Russia. But soon after leaving Moscow, Rice hinted that Belarus, one of Russia's staunchest allies, could be due for a democratic uprising.
Despite her smiles and careful words in Moscow, Rice's visit to Lithuania on Thursday and George W. Bush's planned visit to Latvia next month are particularly stinging to Russians, amid their preparations for the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler.
The Baltic countries see the end of World War II as the beginning of 50 years of unwelcome Soviet annexation, and their resentment remains so high that the U.S. Congress may pass a resolution demanding that Russia call its presence in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia illegal occupation.
Russia, meanwhile, views victory over Nazism as its greatest feat of the 20th century, one that came at the loss of a staggering 27 million Soviet lives, and one that nearly every Russian recalls with pride and emotion even now. The Baltic refusal to share in this sense of victory comes as a deep and incomprehensible blow.
Russian television gave little attention to Rice's visit or to her critical comments before and after. That's partly a reflection of Russian TV's dependence on the state, and of the prevailing Kremlin view that Russia is no longer dependent on U.S. aid and approval. But the television crews might have ignored Rice's visit for another reason: It was bland, and devoid of any new signs of shift in US-Russian policy.