by Paul Ames
Recent exchanges between the Kremlin and NATO headquarters in Brussels have been marked by dueling espionage allegations, diplomats expelled, war games denounced and high-level talks canceled in anger.
The bombast has resembled the bad old Cold War days rather than the thaw expected after the Obama administration announced it wanted to "press the reset button" on Russian's strained relations with the West.
However, despite the tense rhetoric, a new modus vivendi may be emerging between Moscow and the Western alliance.
"We have an excellent opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues," U.S. President Barack Obama told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Washington on Thursday.
Those issues, Obama said, include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the world economy.
Differences, however, run deep over the future of Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics which Moscow wants to prevent from joining the Western alliance. Many in the pro-Western camp in those nations fear a new U.S. rapprochement with Russia could leave them out in the cold.
Russian opinion has been inflamed by the NATO military exercises in Georgia involving more than 1,000 troops from 18 countries that started Wednesday.
In reality, the maneuvers represent a consolation prize to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his pro-Western supporters whose aspirations of securing membership in the military alliance have all but evaporated following their military defeat at Russian hands last August.
Although official NATO policy still says Georgia and Ukraine will become members of the alliance, NATO expansion has been on the back burner since France and Germany -- under pressure from Russia -- postponed indefinitely the launch of a pre-membership program for the Black Sea nations at a summit last year in Bucharest.
Any lingering hopes have been dashed by European concern over the eternal political crisis in Ukraine and instability in Georgia since Russian-backed separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions broke away following the August war.
All of this is good news for a Russian leadership that views the desire of neighboring states to seek closer ties to the West as a threat to its national security.
Although NATO initially curbed ties with Russia in response to the war in Georgia and Moscow's unilateral recognition of the breakaway regions, the alliance has been keen to avoid a permanent rift and had recently agreed to resume normal business under the NATO-Russia Council.
Those plans were hit by the expulsion last week of two Russian diplomats accused of spying at NATO headquarters and the tit-for-tat ejection of two Canadians working at the NATO information office in Moscow.
The angry words from both sides over the espionage episode, combined with Russian bluster about the NATO war games in Georgia, cast a shadow over hopes of an Obama-inspired warming of relations.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev blasted the Georgia maneuvers as a "genuine provocation" and warned of "negative consequences" for those behind them. Lavrov pulled out of his first meeting with NATO counterparts since the August conflict, denouncing the alliance's "confrontational logic of the Cold War."
NATO diplomats acknowledge that Georgia will be a long-term bugbear in relations with Russia but they also suggest there is a growing willingness within the alliance to seek a new understanding with Moscow despite its continued hostility toward the government in Tbilisi.
Obama's decision to take a fresh look at the Bush administration's plans to install anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic could remove one major Russian concern.
Washington's offer of talks on a new strategic arms reduction treaty has been welcomed by the Kremlin, which appreciates such reminders of its nuclear superpower status.
The United States also is wooing Russia for support in its efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and wants Moscow to support the fight against the Taliban by opening new supply routes to troops in Afghanistan.
Such global issues, Lavrov suggested to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week, were worth more to the West than any concern over little Georgia.
"The task of further reductions of strategic offensive weapons is too important for both Russia and for (the) U.S. and, for the entire world in fact, to make it hostage of any particular regime," he said at a news conference, in an apparent reference to the Saakashvili regime.
Characteristically Moscow's envoy to NATO put it more bluntly.
"Is it a good idea to tease the Russian bear by continuing to support regimes in Georgia and Ukraine only so they stand ready to be used as a counterweight to Russia?" Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin wrote Wednesday in the New York Times.
If it continues to do so, Rogozin warned, "NATO will be the first to suffer, in terms of both the security and economic stability of its member states."
Faced with such threats, Washington and its NATO allies have to decide whether efforts to appease Russian concerns will simply embolden hardliners in Moscow to seek additional concessions, or whether a more conciliatory approach will persuade the Kremlin that NATO can be a partner rather than a rival, even if it eventually revives plans to take on more members in the East.