MADRID, Spain -- Six months ago, a meeting between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would have been the main event.
But today's two-hour tete-a-tete is a mere sideshow to the peace conference heralding the first direct talks in four decades between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
For all the Soviet Union's cooperation in luring Arab states and Palestinians here, it was its very decline as a superpower that helped persuade Middle East leaders to join the U.S.-led peace process.
Bush administration officials have made little effort to trumpet today's two-hour luncheon meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev as anything more than a means of launching the conference on a note of harmony.
But the future course of the Soviet Union itself will remain a major preoccupation of top administration officials once bilateral Middle East talks get under way, according to officials.
Behind the scenes, the administration has been wrestling furiously with whether Mr. Bush should announce a Soviet aid package and, if so, how big.
The aid is expected to be high on the Soviet president's agenda.
"I would not expect any announcements on assistance," said an administration official who reflects the views of senior policy-makers. "We're continuing to examine the Soviets' needs and requirements."
One State Department official said there was a flurry of last-minute bureaucratic activity on the aid question but added, "no one knows what the president himself is thinking."
With the rapid approach of the Soviet winter, some form of aid is almost inevitable, this official said, but may be too complex to work out by today.
Officials signaled last week that even if Mr. Bush were to announce an aid package, it would not be large at this stage.
The United States has so far aided the Soviet economy with agricultural credits and technical assistance.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood Jr., along with a group of industrialists, left Sunday to advise the Soviets on converting defense plants to civilian uses.
Deputy finance ministers from the seven industrialized democracies have gone to Moscow to speak to the Soviets about debt.
But much broader proposals on future aid are circulating inside the administration, which has been prodded by Germany, among others, to do more.
"The numbers are so big it really is mind-boggling," a U.S. official said.
In a "wide open" discussion, Mr. Bush is expected to probe Mr. Gorbachev's assessment of the shrinking Soviet center's relations with the republics and what that means for continued economic reform.
It has become generally accepted within the administration that power has shifted decisively to the republics, although Mr. Bush appears to feel a special drive to bolster his Soviet counterpart.
An administration official said Mr. Bush wants Mr. Gorbachev's "evaluation of the current situation, economic conditions and the prospects for future republics' participating in an economic union."
Only eight republics have joined the economic union so far.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who heads the largest republic, pushed the center further toward irrelevance yesterday when he declared his intention to assume the post of prime minister to press harder toward radical free-market reforms.
"That was good timing to upstage the two leaders," a U.S. diplomat said.
Differences exist in the Bush administration about how deeply worried Washington should be about the Ukraine's military ambitions.
While it is not seen to be coveting its own nuclear arsenal, the Ukraine does want a voice in how nuclear weapons are disposed of and has announced plans to build its own 400,000-man army.
One continuing major aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations will be arms control -- figuring out how to implement the sweeping Bush and Gorbachev nuclear weapons-cut proposals and gaining ratification of and adherence to treaties already signed.
But Mr. Bush said last week that he did not plan to bring a response to the Soviets' latest initiative, indicating that his advisers had not yet worked out a position.
The schedule of speeches for the opening sessions of the Mideast peace talks in Madrid, Spain. All times are local, which is six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time:
10:30 a.m. Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain opens the conference.
10:40 a.m. President Bush
11 a.m. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev
2:15 p.m. European Community representative
3:15 p.m. Egypt.
4 p.m. End of opening session
10 a.m. Israel
11:15 a.m. Jordanian-Palestinian delegation
2:45 p.m. Jordanian-Palestinian delegation
4 p.m. Lebanon
5:15 p.m. Syria
5:45 p.m. End of second-day session
8 a.m. Israeli rebuttal
8:15 a.m. Jordanian-Palestinian rebuttal
8:45 a.m. Lebanese rebuttal
9 a.m. Syrian rebuttal
9:15 a.m. Egyptian rebuttal
9:30 a.m. Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin
a.m. Secretary of State James A. Baker III
10:30 a.m. End of third-day session