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Bush/Putin Summit: Close Relations, Conflicting Interests

  • Victor Yasmann --> For RFE/RL's complete coverage and analysis of the Russia-U.S. summit in Bratislava, see our dedicated Bush-Putin Summit 2005 --> webpage.

When U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit down in Bratislava on 24 February, they will find that relations between the two countries have stalled in almost all aspects, despite the good personal rapport the two men have established since their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001. Although policymakers and analysts in both countries agree that relations have soured, they differ when it comes to explaining why.

U.S.-based politicians and observers argue that the deterioration in bilateral relations stems from a change in Putin's political course, namely, his suppression of the opposition and the independent mass media, his taming of the judiciary, and his nostalgia for the Soviet past. The latter, these analysts say, has led to shortsighted attempts to restore Russian hegemony in the post-Soviet space and to interfere in the domestic affairs of Ukraine, Georgia, and other CIS countries. They also cite the ongoing war in Chechnya, all-pervasive corruption, and the Yukos affair.

Cold War Mentality

Russian political figures and analysts, however, tend to blame the downturn in relations on the "Cold War mentality" that still grips many key U.S. players, on anti-Russia lobbying efforts within the United States, and on objective conflicts in the two countries' national interests. RTR commentator Nikolai Svanidze said on 19 February that although Bush and Putin enjoy cordial personal relations, the bureaucracies in both countries are hanging on to the Cold War habit of "perceiving each other with hostility." "Public opinion [in both countries] has accumulated a lot of mistrust and the mass media also demonstrate a lot of mutual aggressiveness and mutual pleasure in the failures of the other," Svanidze said.

TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov on 18 February explained the souring of relation by citing the active efforts of "anti-Russia lobbies" in the United States. "In the United States, Putin's opponents have initiated a campaign of pressure on President Bush to get him to toughen his position toward Russia and toward Putin personally," Pushkov said. Although generally Bush administration figures resist such pressure, Pushkov said, the impression is being created lately that more and more of them are adopting this mindset. Nonetheless, Moscow prefers to deal with Bush, who has chosen to have Putin "as a friend, not a foe," Pushkov said. "If, for example, Senator John McCain [Republican, Arizona], who still seems to be fighting the Vietnam War, were in the White House, we would already have a [new] Cold War between Russia and the United States."

Pushkov added that if one looks realistically at the global situation and ignores formulaic public declarations about "the joint fight against international terrorism," there is much more dividing the two countries than there is bringing them closer. It remains to be seen how long the good personal relations between the two presidents can survive a direct collision of national interests, Pushkov said.

The Yukos Fallout

The Yukos affair has been pushed to the forefront of attention over the last week when a group of U.S. Congress members tied the scandal to a call to suspend Russia's membership of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries. This idea was first revived by philanthropist George Soros in a 13 February interview with the Austrian daily "Der Standard." Then, on 18 February, Senator McCain and Senator Joseph Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut), backed by three other Republicans and two Democrats, introduced a motion in Congress that called for Russia's G-8 participation to be suspended until Moscow "ends its assault on democracy and political freedom," reported.

Commenting on Soros's proposal, Politika foundation head Vyacheslav Nikonov told TV-Tsentr on 14 February that Moscow does not believe the threat is realistic. For one thing, Nikonov said, the G-8 is an informal group without its own charter, making it difficult to determine if there is more or less democracy in Russia than, say, Japan. Moreover, there is no precedent or procedure for suspending a country's membership of the group, Nikonov said. Suspending Russia would require the unanimous agreement of the other seven members, which is problematic. Finally, he added, Bush regards Soros in almost the same light that Putin regards former oligarch Boris Berezovskii and is unlikely to be sympathetic to any of his proposals.
Russian political figures and analysts tend to blame the downturn in relations on the "Cold War mentality" that still grips many key U.S. players and on objective conflicts in the two countries' national interests.

Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) also attributed the slump in relations to conflicting national interests, RTR reported on 19 February. Kosachev noted that on 18 February Putin received Iranian National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani in the Kremlin and expressed his willingness to continue Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear-power program, despite the objections of Washington and Jerusalem. Putin also confirmed his plan to visit Tehran soon.

However, Kosachev added, Russia has no interest in seeing Iran become a nuclear power, as the country is much closer to Russia than to the United States and "we are not suicidal." Moscow will continue developing the nuclear-power plant at Bushehr and will ensure that it remains under reliable control. He added that immediately following the Bratislava summit, Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev will sign an agreement with Iran on the return to Russia of spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr.

Weapons And Syria

Kosachev also noted that the United States and Israel have raised serious objections to media reports that Moscow intends to sell the Strelets (SA-18) surface-to-air missile to Syria. Washington argues that the Syrian government is linked to Hezbollah, which the United States has declared to be a terrorist organization, and fears that the missiles could fall into Hezbollah's hands. However, Kosachev said that the missiles in question are mounted on trucks and can be easily monitored by satellites. Although Washington has argued that the SA-18 can be easily dismantled and handed over to terrorists, Kosachev countered that they cannot be easily smuggled into a position that could threaten Israel. He even proposed that a panel of international experts be convened to determine whether the missiles can actually be removed from their trucks. Kosachev concluded by arguing, as Putin has, that the missiles in question are not the subject of any international limitations agreement and that Syria is not under any international weapons sanctions.

Kosachev also noted that improving Russia-China relations could be a source of tension between Moscow and Washington. He noted that Moscow's relations with Beijing have improved markedly in recent months, citing in particular that fact that a longstanding border dispute was recently resolved. He said that the driving force behind developments is China's booming economy and its drive toward becoming the world's No. 1 energy consumer. Earlier this month, China announced that it plans to double energy consumption within five years. Therefore, competition between the United States and China for energy resources is bound to increase and any aspect of Russian-Chinese relations -- including military cooperation -- will be seen by Washington through this prism, Kosachev said.

Don't Forget The Nuclear Issue

Although Kosachev did not mention it, the list of problems in U.S.-Russia relations would not be complete without reference to joint nuclear security. According to numerous Russian media reports in recent weeks, the United States purportedly intends to put forward a serious proposal on the joint monitoring of both countries' nuclear arsenals. According to the reports, the proposal includes the idea that combined teams of monitors from both sides will observe "high-risk nuclear objects" in both the military and civilian sectors of both countries, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 February.

The reports have set off real hysteria among Russia's national-patriotic forces, which consider it tantamount to "a nuclear ultimatum for Putin," "Zavtra" publisher Aleksandr Prokhanov told Ekho Moskvy on 18 February. Speculation about such a pending U.S. proposal reached its peak on 11 February when the Foreign Ministry posted on its website ( a special statement stressing that "all speculation about the purported planned signing of an accord on international control over Russia's nuclear arsenal are groundless." The statement said baldly, "There are no such talks and there can be no such talks."

The same statement, however, confirmed that nuclear safety was on the agenda when Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited Washington in January, and it quoted Ivanov's comment that "combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of the clearest and most obvious lines of U.S.-Russian cooperation. Here we have no disagreements."

Despite the official denial, the topic continues to excite Russia's national-patriotic community. On 19 February, several Russian Orthodox and Cossack organizations held a demonstration in Moscow, calling on the Kremlin to "protect Russia's nuclear sovereignty" and to "organize a people's militia for the protection of Russia's nuclear arsenal," Ekho Moskvy reported. Military journalist Aleksandr Golts told the radio station that "foreign control over Russia's nuclear arsenal is a favorite fable of Russian patriots. In fact, the United States and Russia cannot even agree about Iran's nuclear program."

It is unlikely that the two presidents will manage to discuss such a wide range of controversial issues, given the tight schedule of the summit. According to media reports, Bush and Putin will meet in Bratislava for an initial one-hour session and then later, together with their delegations, for another 90 minutes. Bearing this in mind, most specialists do not harbor great expectations for the summit. "It will be good if the presidents do not quarrel openly," Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko told on 21 February.