Bush, Putin seeking a closer partnership

For two leaders, summit offers a chance to cement U.S.-Russia relationship

May 23, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After meeting Vladimir V. Putin last summer for the first time, President Bush declared that he had looked the Russian president in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

What Bush actually saw that day in Slovenia, his aides recall, was opportunity. He saw Putin signaling that he wanted a genuine alliance between the United States and Russia - something U.S. officials had not previously heard from Moscow.

For Bush and his foreign policy team, Putin's overture seemed to offer real hope for reducing mistrust between Washington and Moscow, and for helping Russia develop warmer, more predictable relations with the West.

"Not since before the First World War has there been a serious chance at this," a senior Bush administration official said last week. "It seemed like the stars were aligned properly to try."

Beginning today, Bush will hold talks with Putin for four days in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Bush aides point to the closer ties with Russia as one of the president's most significant foreign policy successes.

Bush took office hoping for amicable relations with Russia but with no plan to forge a partnership. He had even suggested before becoming president that U.S.-Russian relations were too cozy. It seems that Putin and the new U.S. priorities since the September terrorist attacks were able to change his mind.

Since the presidents met, Bush has brought Russia to the fore of his foreign policy, driven by a sense that a partnership could serve U.S. interests.

Bush and Putin have the chance to further the relationship when they sign a new arms treaty at a formal ceremony today in Moscow. The accord calls for the two nations to reduce their nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds over the next decade. Beyond signing the treaty, each leader is more aware of concerns in the other's country than was the case a year ago.

But U.S. officials still view Russia as a potential source of dangerous instability, because of its fragile economy and its nuclear arsenal. Russians uneasily sense that the United States regards them as inferior and may ignore Russia's concerns. It will take more than one presidential summit to change such entrenched beliefs.

In the short-term, Bush and Putin will begin tackling the seemingly intractable economic issues on which their predecessors, Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin, failed to make progress. These are the issues, analysts say, that will determine whether both countries can be served by a partnership and whether Russia is ready to open to the West.

The challenges include the further opening of Russia to U.S. investment, making Russian oil and natural gas available to the United States, and helping Russia gain membership in the World Trade Organization and build a reputation as a free-market economy.

Unless there is clear progress soon in the economic arena, analysts say, either president could decide to back away and give the partnership lower priority. And the new arms treaty, while symbolically important, was likely the easiest item to deal with.

Putin entered the relationship mindful of the grumbling from politicians at home wondering whether closer relations with the United States are of much value. Bush, while facing some conservatives skeptical of closer ties to Russia, is freer than Putin to play up the coziness of their partnership.

For Putin's sake, Bush has tried hard to portray the summit as a meeting of equals, even if that may not be the case.

"Putin would like two or three important things that he can take back and show to people and say that the U.S. really seems to be recognizing our interests," said Paul Saunders, a Russia scholar and director of the Nixon Center in Washington. "The Russians want to feel respected."

The two men have given each other significant diplomatic victories. Bush helped Putin by not criticizing Russia's actions in Chechnya, the breakaway republic where Russian troops have brutally fought rebels.

Bush also agreed to sign the arms treaty, after initially opposing a formal accord. His decision was made in part to please crucial members of Congress but also as a favor to Putin, who hopes to use the document to suggest to Russians that their nation still matters to the United States.

Putin handed Bush a victory when he raised little objection to the administration's announced intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which will allow Bush to move ahead on plans for a missile defense system.

There is evidence, too, that Putin may support efforts by Bush to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And in a substantial boost to Bush's response to Sept. 11, Putin raised no objections to the Pentagon sending troops and materiel to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Economic issues

On the more challenging economic agenda, Bush is in favor of granting much of Putin's wish list, but he faces congressional resistance and skepticism from U.S. companies about Russia's shaky investment climate.

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