Relations between the world's two nuclear superpowers were plummeting to new depths yesterday as Moscow attacked the United States as an "immoral" supporter of terrorism.
The Kremlin was infuriated by Washington's decision to dispatch a high-ranking official to meet a senior Chechen rebel envoy just two days after a wave of deadly car bombings for which Russia has blamed the guerrillas.
The co-ordinated bombings killed 23 people and wounded more than 130 in southern Russia near the boundary with the renegade province.
By meeting with the Chechens, President George W. Bush's new administration has shown "on what side it stands in the international struggle against terrorism," the Russian Foreign Ministry snapped yesterday.
"Such a step by a great civilized power would have looked unnatural in the past," it said. "After the latest bloody crimes of the Chechen terrorists, Washington's action seems simply immoral."
Russia had warned of retaliation against Washington if the meeting went ahead, but was ignored.
Analysts say the relationship between Moscow and Washington has tumbled to its worst level since the Cold War, with increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides.
Relations, already tense over U.S. plans to build a national missile-defence system, have deteriorated further during the fallout over a scandal involving Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Robert Hanssen, accused of spying for Moscow over a 15-year period.
In such an atmosphere, the symbolism of Monday's meeting between John Beyrle, U.S. assistant secretary of state for newly independent nations, and rebel foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov was unmistakable.
Under former president Bill Clinton's administration, a lower-ranking desk officer met with Mr. Akhmadov. But by allowing a senior diplomat to meet the Chechen envoy, the new government sent a clear signal of its willingness to defy Russian warnings -- even when it knows it will provoke Moscow.
The meeting was also a sign of the mounting U.S. pressure on Russia to begin negotiating a political solution to the war in Chechnya.
The battle erupted within hours of Monday's meeting. A Kremlin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, accused Washington of "double standards." The chairman of a parliamentary foreign-affairs committee, Dmitry Rogozin, said the United States can now be considered an official supporter of terrorism.
Meanwhile, Russia escalated the feud over the espionage scandal last night. State television played secret surveillance footage of three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of spying on Russia.
The grainy black-and-white videotape, released by secret police, showed two of the diplomats meeting a Russian man at a restaurant near Moscow's zoo. The diplomats offered money to the man in exchange for maps of secret minefields in a Siberian river near strategic Russian sites, the television channel alleged.
The third diplomat, U.S. naval attaché Robert Brannon, was shown in other surveillance tapes and was accused of gathering secret information on a Russian reconnaissance vessel in the Mediterranean.
The television channel said police released the videotapes in retaliation for the Bush administration's "unfriendly actions" in sending home or expelling 50 Russian diplomats from Washington last week in the aftermath of the Hanssen affair.
In a tit-for-tat response, Russia vowed to expel the same number of U.S. diplomats. The Kremlin confirmed yesterday that it has given the United States a list of four diplomats to be expelled within 10 days. It also handed over a second list of 46 diplomats to be expelled.
Washington's new tough line against Moscow has included a refusal to hold an early summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin, criticism of Russian arms deals with Iran and condemnation of the Kremlin's espionage activities.
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