Russia Deal May Fall, a Casualty of Conflict
WASHINGTON - Just three months ago, President Bush reached a long-sought agreement with Russia intended to open a new era of civilian nuclear cooperation and sent it to Congress for review. Now, according to administration officials, Mr. Bush is preparing to scrap his own deal.
The imminent collapse of the nuclear deal, once a top Bush priority, represents the most tangible casualty so far of the deteriorating relations with Russia following its brief war with neighboring Georgia. With Vice President Dick Cheney heading to Georgia next week, Mr. Bush is also poised to announce about $1 billion in economic aid to the country, the officials said.
Unlike more symbolic actions being discussed in Washington, like throwing Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, canceling the nuclear pact would involve concrete consequences potentially worth billions of dollars to Russia. Yet it also would mean unraveling an initiative that was critical to Mr. Bush's vision of safely spreading civilian nuclear energy around the world, a program that relied in part on Russian involvement.
The agreement would have reversed decades of bipartisan policy and allowed extensive commercial nuclear trade, technology transfers and joint research between Russia and the United States. It also would have cleared the way for Russia to import, store and possibly reprocess spent nuclear fuel from American-supplied reactors around the world - a lucrative business for Russia and a way for the United States to build nuclear plants while keeping radioactive waste out of less reliable hands.
The pact already faced deep skepticism in Congress because of Russia's resistance to tougher action against Iran over its nuclear program. But it might have cleared the legislative review process if not for the clash between Russia and Georgia. Now Bush administration officials have concluded it will not survive a Congressional vote, and say that withdrawing it would send a signal to Moscow yet preserve the possibility of resubmitting it to Congress next year if tensions ease.
"The administration is just about at the point of making a decision to pull it," said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "We're getting pretty close to that." The official added that an announcement by the president "could happen any time soon."
Other officials cautioned that Mr. Bush had made no final decision and might wait to see what came out of a meeting of European Union heads of state on Monday. The White House press secretary, Dana M. Perino, said there would be consequences for Russia but declined to discuss them. "We just aren't there yet," she said. "It's premature to say."
But some experts on Russia and on nuclear proliferation said Mr. Bush had few options. "This agreement is probably going to be the first casualty of Georgia," said Robert Nurick, a nonproliferation specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Whatever you may think of the merits, there's no point in bashing your head against the wall."
While Mr. Bush ponders his options, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic presidential nominee, and his running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, met separately on Thursday with a Georgian delegation visiting the party convention in Denver.
"He wanted to show solidarity and show that he's engaged on this very important foreign policy issue," said Michael McFaul, an Obama adviser.
Meanwhile, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, visited Georgia this week as part of a humanitarian mission.
At the White House, the nuclear pact and the economic package are at the top of a menu of options being debated by senior officials. Officials said they were still finalizing the aid package, which they estimated would be in the $1 billion range. Other ideas include rebuilding the shattered Georgian military and aggressively investigating Russian business transactions in the West in search of corrupt practices, officials said.
John P. Hannah, the vice president's national security adviser, would not discuss administration plans, but told reporters on Thursday that in Georgia Mr. Cheney would deliver "a clear and simple message that the United States has a deep and abiding interest in the well-being and security of this part of the world."
The nuclear deal was broached by Mr. Bush during a July 2006 visit to Russia, and the two governments spent two years shaping a formal agreement before signing it in Moscow in May on the day before Vladimir V. Putin, who is now prime minister, stepped down as president. The United States already has similar agreements with Europe, China, Japan and other countries.
The pact does not require Congressional approval but must be reviewed on Capitol Hill for 90 legislative days before it can go into effect. Congress could block the deal with majority votes in both houses or it could proactively approve it without waiting for the clock to expire.
Senator Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had introduced a bipartisan measure to approve the deal, and his House counterpart, Representative Howard L. Berman of California, had pushed through committee a measure approving it with conditions. But now neither predicts it will pass. "Even before Georgia, there were real issues," Mr. Berman said. "This came along, and there's just no appetite for it now."
The issue prompted an intense debate within the administration, with some advocates of the agreement arguing for just leaving it alone because the 90-day period would probably not be completed this year, anyway, requiring the clock to restart next year.
"At the moment, people are worried that the current crisis in Georgia will make it harder to insulate the nonproliferation cooperation from the wider difficulties in the relationship," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.
Critics of the agreement, though, said the president should not only withdraw it but also vow not to resubmit it next year. "Without taking these actions, the administration's tough talk should be viewed as white noise," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, based in Washington.
by Peter Baker
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.
The New York Times