Spats Suggest New Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations

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One day Moscow is arresting an alleged U.S. "spy"; the next day the U.S. seizes a Russian oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on suspicion that it is carrying Iraqi oil. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the clock had been turned back two decades to the height of the Cold War — and that's exactly the spin President Vladimir Putin's government wants to put on its relations with the West. The U.S. Navy announced Friday that its forces maintaining a blockade of Iraq were holding a Russian tanker pending tests to establish the origin of the oil on board, prompting a furious reaction from Moscow. The incident came the same day as Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov castigated a decision by European Union member states to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe for its refusal to accept independent investigation of human rights violations in Chechnya.

"Russia's not going to allow any kind of independent investigation of massacres in Chechnya," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "And the harder the West pushes, the deeper they'll dig in. In fact, they're using these charges to get as much political mileage as possible, accusing the Europeans of maintaining Cold War stereotypes and accusing NATO of committing its own human rights violations against Serbia during the Kosovo campaign."

Putin, for his part, did his best to underscore his man-of-action hawkish image Thursday by going down in a submarine to take part in missile test-firings in the Arctic. Unlike Boris Yeltsin, who tried to project himself as a cantankerous but ultimately cuddly pal of the West, Putin has unashamedly staked out nationalist credentials, making it clear that no matter how economically interdependent it becomes with the West, Russia's national interest is primary and will be aggressively defended. The Council of Europe vote is part of a wider effort to apply international human rights standards in situations where, traditionally, the perpetrators' invocation of national sovereignty has been enough to close the case. But in Chechnya, the very fact that he appeared to be defying Western concerns actually made Putin's war even more popular among Russians. In other words, the appearance of getting tough with the West is the political touchstone of a president elected without ever defining a domestic policy agenda, and he's not about to let that go.