Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State, issued an unusually blunt criticism of the state of Russian democracy yesterday amid signs of a deepening chill between the two allies in George Bush's "war on terror".
There were many protestations of enduring friendship as General Powell met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin's ornate Green Room. Mr Putin hailed progress in US-Russia nuclear disarmament and said Moscow looked forward to joining in an American-sponsored bid to put men on Mars by 2020.
Some Russian experts saw things differently after General Powell's outspoken comments in a front-page interview with the daily Izvestia. "The relationship is not at its best," said Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments. "The Americans have become increasingly messianic and want to impose their views of democracy and strategic necessity in every situation."
Only slightly mincing his words in the interview, General Powell put his finger on America's main complaints, suggesting that under Mr Putin, Russia is becoming more authoritarian and increasingly aggressive toward its former Soviet neighbours.
Although General Powell did not mention any post-Soviet states by name, he clearly had in mind recent tensions over Georgia, where the US and Russia have been tussling for influence since the collapse of the USSR. "Certain aspects [of Russian policy] toward neighbours that emerged from the former Soviet Union concern us," he wrote.
"Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society - free media and development of a political party system, for example - have not yet attained independent reality."
Pro-Kremlin and nationalist parties won more than two-thirds of seats in the State Duma last month, in elections that international observers called deeply flawed. The state's near-total control over the media was cited as a crucial factor in bending the result the Kremlin's way. No major opposition figure has dared to run against Mr Putin in presidential polls slated for 14 March, guaranteeing him an easy walk back to his Kremlin office for four more years.
General Powell also criticised Russia's war against the secessionist republic of Chechnya, though Washington had previously seemed to accept Moscow's contention that the conflict, which has caused tens of thousands of deaths, is part of the common global war on terrorism. After the terror attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, Mr Putin called George Bush and offered Russia's support in the global war against al-Qa'ida. But the relationship began to unravel over the US invasion of Iraq last year, and has worsened amid Bush administration criticism of Kremlin policies.
Moscow has rebuffed US demands that it withdraw Soviet-era military bases from Georgia and Moldova, and said that the troops represent legitimate Russian national interests. At the same time, the US has extended indefinitely the stay of a 400-man military presence in Georgia, ostensibly to protect the western-financed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is expected to begin carrying Caspian oil to world markets by next year.
"Why do the Americans think it's OK for them to plant bases all around our borders, while they feel free to criticise every Russian military movement in the former Soviet Union?" said Mr Konovalov.
Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said at a joint press conference yesterday that Moscow takes no offence at General Powell's remarks, and that anything can be discussed "in a constructive atmosphere of openness".
But some Russian experts said it is not so much what General Powell said but the imperious cold war tone in which he said it that causes alarm.