Summit symbolizes change in Russian-U.S. relationship

Unlike his predecessors, Putin to meet with Bush as partner against terror

November 12, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Vladimir V. Putin arrives here tonight for a three-day summit with President Bush, he will come not as a superpower rival, as did Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, nor as a supplicant, as did his immediate predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in the 1990s. The leaders of Russia and the United States will instead be meeting as strategic partners, joined against what they call the common enemy of terrorism.

With Russia's president resolutely steering his country toward the West and solidly behind Bush's war on terrorist bases in Afghanistan, the White House has decided a summit no longer has to produce an arms-control agreement to be judged a success.

"This is a different relationship than the one that Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon had, or even that George Herbert Walker Bush and Gorbachev had," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said last week. At those meetings, "the key moment was when the two sides signed an agreement that said we don't want to destroy each other. And the whole world breathed a sigh of relief."

Now the relationship is "very, very good and also normal," she said.

The outlines of a strategic arms deal are becoming clear, satisfying Russia's need for deep cuts in the two countries' offensive nuclear arsenal and Bush's aim to test a missile defense system.

Failure to reach it, or to make demonstrable progress, would be a sign that however good ties between the countries appear to be, major hurdles remain to be overcome in turning a wartime alliance into a durable friendship.

Asked last week how important an agreement is for Putin, a Russian Embassy spokesman said, "Very."

Rice, in keeping with a tradition of lowering expectations for U.S.-Russian summits, said yesterday on ABC's This Week that talks were "moving along" but added, "I wouldn't look for any particular agreement out of any particular meeting."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met twice over the weekend with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov. During yesterday's meeting, they "concentrated on strategic framework issues," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, indicating the two sides were trying to reach a deal.

Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, will stay two nights at Blair House, the presidential guest house across from the White House, before joining the Bushes at their ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Tomorrow morning, the two presidents and their national security teams will meet and then hold a working lunch to discuss economic and business issues, meeting the media afterward in the East Room of the White House. Later, Putin will make brief remarks to the congressional leadership and speak at the Russian Embassy.

On Wednesday morning, the Putins will fly to Houston, where Putin will speak at Rice University and meet with business leaders, and then fly to Waco, Texas, heading for dinner with the Bushes at their ranch. After spending the night there, the couples will meet for breakfast Thursday morning and spend part of the day there before Putin heads for New York.

Close in age - Bush is 55, Putin 49 - the leaders come from starkly contrasting backgrounds. Putin rose through the ranks of the Soviet KGB, while Bush spent his career in business and Texas politics.

But analysts say they share a common drive for results that brought them closer after mutual wariness during the early months of the Bush administration. The scheduling of a Putin visit to the Bush ranch was a sign that the U.S. president wanted to find a meeting of the minds with the Russian leader.

The terror attacks Sept. 11 turned a businesslike relationship into a partnership in fighting the demons of terrorism, extremism and instability in Central Asia. Suddenly, the two nations had a common enemy. Putin has long argued that Russia's war against the breakaway Chechens is a fight against Islamic terrorism.

In a major break with Russia's past, Putin allowed American forces to set up staging areas in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet republics in Central Asia that Moscow views as within its sphere of influence.

Russia has also poured arms and equipment into Afghanistan to help the Northern Alliance, America's ally of convenience in the fight against the Taliban regime.

The new partnership in a dangerous region could be a "showcase" of U.S.-Russian cooperation, said commentator Alexei Pushkov, speaking from Russia during a telephone conference conducted at the Nixon Center.

Russian leaders worked closely with the United States during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 and 1991 and later over the Balkans. But now they're doing so with a new conviction.

"This is a choice that Russia made for itself quite a long time ago," Putin told ABC-TV's Barbara Walters of his decision to side with the West.

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