By Igor Tobarkov

The exceptionally harsh criticism of Russia’s behavior by the senior Western representatives at this week’s Vilnius summit of Eastern European countries has undoubtedly rattled the Kremlin leadership. But the big question that the Moscow policy elite tries to answer is about the true meaning of its former satellites’ gathering: are the United States and Europe prepared to continue seeking accommodation with the increasingly assertive Russia or have they begun implementing a policy of “selective cooperation” and “selective competition”?

On May 4, the Lithuanian capital welcomed leaders from the Baltic, Black Sea, and Caucasus regions, who arrived to take part in a conference titled “Common Vision for a Common Neighborhood.” This conference was preceded by an NGO forum at which the pundits and civil-society representatives debated the prospects of democratic transformations of the Eastern European and the South Caucasus states.

In an unmistakable sign that the gathering has the West’s full blessing, both U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana attended the event. Furthermore, as most observers hold, Cheney, who is widely seen as one of the most powerful figures within the Bush administration, clearly set the tone of the debate when he flatly accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and urged it to stop using energy supplies to “blackmail” its neighbors. Solana also addressed the conference and, like Cheney, referred to the existence of diplomatic tensions between Brussels and Moscow.

At the core of the discussions in Vilnius was the critical issue of whether the time has come to re-evaluate the West’s relations with Russia and possibly opt for a more competitive policy. The bulk of the forum’s speakers appeared to suggest that the goal of building cooperation with Russia on the basis of common values cannot be achieved as the Kremlin leaders and their Western counterparts espouse quite different political philosophies. But this conclusion would necessarily imply that, as there is dearth of shared values, the Russia-West relationship can only be interest-based. At first blush, such foundation looks much more pragmatic; but it also proves rather tricky as the interests of international actors may or may not coincide. Remarkably, in the crucial issues involving Russia and the other former Soviet republics — such as democratization of Europe’s East and solution of the “frozen conflicts” — the interests of Moscow and the West seem to be increasingly diverging. Furthermore, these interests appear to be inseparable from the political values that the two sides tend to profess.

All this indicates that, even within the paradigm of the interest-based relationship, the space for cooperation between Russia and the Western countries is shrinking and the potential for competition is on the rise. In this context, Cheney’s tough remarks are likely not the isolated pronouncements by the famously independent-minded member of the Bush team known for a hard line on Russia, but rather a coordinated policy of the U.S. administration. Symptomatically, speaking on May 1 in Washington at the National Conference of Editorial Writers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the Russians to recognize that Washington has “legitimate interests and relationships with countries that are in their neighborhood even if those countries were once part of the Soviet Union.”

Russian pundits appear to be divided in their assessment of the “message” sent by the United States to the Kremlin rulers. Some political strategists suggest that Washington is still playing rhetorical games and not prepared so far for an open confrontation with Moscow. On balance, they say, the larger strategic issues like the war on terror and non-proliferation dictate the need for cooperation and ultimately outweigh existing tensions and mutual irritation.

Seen in this light, Cheney’s demarche, Kremlin-connected analysts argue, was pursuing a three-fold “tactical” goal. First, by castigating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign and domestic policies, Washington has demonstrated that the Bush administration, contrary to the allegations of its internal and external critics, is not soft on Moscow. Second, America likely grabbed the opportunity to flex its muscles a bit and serve the Kremlin notice that it would be well advised to limit its geopolitical ambitions driven by the windfall fuel revenues. And finally, Washington has likely sought to prop its East European and ex-Soviet “clientele” whose pro-American stance and visceral “Russophobia” need to be occasionally stimulated. But overall, these analysts say, the United States still tends to find accommodation with Russia.

Other Russian political thinkers are less optimistic. The East European forum will likely further poison the political atmosphere in the run-up to the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. As Western confidence in Russia melts, Moscow will be hard pressed to pursue its planned agenda. At the same time, U.S. and EU pressure are bound to prompt a more aggressive Kremlin reaction. Thus, the growing confrontation results in the perpetuation of a vicious cycle that prevents the mutually beneficial interaction between Russia and the Western world.