At G-8 summit, Bush's bond with Putin put to test

July 10, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS AND ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS AND ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is facing a defining test of his bond with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this week in St. Petersburg, where the two are to meet at a global summit amid strained relations between their two nations.

For Bush, who enjoys showcasing his rapport with foreign leaders, the meeting is a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate that his approach can yield concrete diplomatic benefits, such as cooperation from Russia in dealing with nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.

But much has changed between the United States and Russia since Bush famously said in 2001 that he had looked Putin in the eye and gotten "a sense of his soul." Back then, Bush called the Russian president "trustworthy and straightforward." Now, their relationship is complicated by what the United States sees as Putin's concentration of power and intimidation of his neighbors, as Russia -- emboldened by its energy wealth -- increasingly asserts itself, on its own terms, on the world stage.

Bush, who is under pressure to take Putin to task for those moves, has said he sees this week's Group of Eight summit in Russia as a chance to address the issues with his friend. A senior administration official said last week that "it's a safe bet" that U.S. concerns about Russia's democracy and its treatment of other nations in the region will be on the agenda during one-on-one meetings between Bush and Putin before the summit begins.

"I don't necessarily agree with every decision he's made about what's happening inside of Russia, but it's very important for me to keep a good personal relationship with him so I can have good, candid discussions," Bush told CNN's Larry King last week. "But nobody either wants to be lectured by somebody; nobody either likes to be scolded publicly."

The long-standing ties between Bush and Putin will come in handy at a time when their countries' relationship "has really been deteriorating," said Andrew C. Kuchins, a Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The whole atmosphere has gotten so testy, and they will want to use this opportunity to turn things around."

Still, Kuchins added, "there are real questions about just how influential can the personal relationship be on policy issues?"

Officials in the United States and Russia tout the leaders' easy friendship -- Bush calls Putin by his first name, and they are said to speak frequently by telephone -- but acknowledge that the two are not in lockstep.

Bush and Putin have a "a pretty good working relationship," Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said recently, adding, "They're going to disagree on some stuff."

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's deputy press secretary, called the relationship between Bush and Putin strong and said they can discuss disagreements "very openly, very frankly."

But he suggested that the bond has limits. "We have to remember that when we are speaking about personal relationships of presidents, each of them is thinking first of all about the national interests of his country. None of them will victimize the interests of his country for the personal relationship," Peskov said.

The dynamic between the two leaders, U.S. and Russian analysts say, has inevitably changed. If they were once best described as senior and junior partners -- with Putin in the latter role -- the Russian president increasingly aspires to an equal role on matters ranging from energy to Iran. Without being explicit, Putin referred to the United States as "Comrade Wolf" during his May state of the nation address, declaring that the wolf "eats and listens to no one."

Bush, too, has stopped short of directly criticizing Russia, exposing him to charges that he has looked the other way on the Kremlin's increasing control over political life, the news media and civil society. But Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at Putin during a May speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he said Russia's "government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people," and he accused the nation of having used oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."

Bush can scarcely afford to paper over his differences with Putin, U.S. and Russian analyst said.

He "has to find someplace between Vice President Cheney's statement and not saying anything," said former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. "You can't be for democratization and see what's happening in Russia and not say something about it."

"The more the two leaders try to play friends and partners at the summit, the more clear will be the strain between the two countries," said Aleksei Mukhin, director of Moscow's Center for Political Information.

Bush is "besieged" by calls to be tough on Putin, but his focus is on how to deal with international crises looming in Iran and North Korea, where a strong relationship with Russia is vital, said Clifford G. Gaddy, a Brookings Institution foreign policy specialist.

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