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Russia: Expect No Showdowns At G8 Summit

  • Brian Whitmore --> Bush (left) with Putin at the last G8 summit, in Scotland in July 2005 (AFP) PRAGUE, July 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Not long ago it looked like the G8 summit might become a Cold War-style showdown, with Washington accusing Moscow of bullying its neighbors, backsliding on democracy, and using energy as a weapon. But as the St. Petersburg summit approaches, a confrontation looks less likely.

Not long ago prominent U.S. politicians were calling on President George W. Bush to confront Russia on these issues at the G8, or to boycott the summit altogether.

Cheney Goes On The Offensive

Speaking at a conference in Vilnius in May, U.S. President Dick Cheney was uncompromising in his criticism of President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"In Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade," Cheney said. "In many areas of civil society, from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people. Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries."

It looked like a harbinger of a new era of confrontation between the United States and Russia. U.S. legislators, including Arizona Senator and one-time presidential hopeful John McCain, called on Bush to at the very least get tough with Putin at the St. Petersburg summit -- or to boycott the event altogether.

But in the weeks since, such tough talk seems to have receded.

Bush Takes A Softer Line

Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" on July 6, Bush said that although he does not agree with every decision Putin makes, he does not plan to "lecture" or "scold" him in St. Petersburg.

So what happened between May and now?

Putin (right) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Shanghai last month (epa)

Carlos Pascual, a scholar with the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says that Cheney's speech was designed to send a message to Russia that Washington was concerned about Moscow's backsliding on democracy and its manipulation of separatist conflicts in Abkhazia, North Ossetia, and Transdniester.

But at the same time the United States needs Russia's help on a series of other major issues like the escalating nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea -- and this limits Washington's ability to pressure Moscow.

What's Important And What's On The Back Burner

"A higher level of priority is nuclear nonproliferation, energy security, the energy agenda with Europe and Ukraine, how Russia uses its energy policy toward its neighbors, what kind of agreement we might be able to get on Iran and if Russia is going to play a constructive role on that," Pascual said. "Those are the No. 1 issues. The frozen conflicts are important, but they are not at the top of anyone's agenda within the administration."

At the same time, Pascual said soaring energy prices have given Russia flexibility and confidence that it has not had since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This has limited the United States' ability to influence Russia's behavior.

"The real issue becomes once you have had experience working with Russia on these kinds of issues and have been trying to achieve a positive agenda, what are the most effective tools to be able to get there," he said. "In the real environment we live in today, Russia has a tremendous tool at its disposal: oil and gas with oil at $70 a barrel."

Today's confident Russia bears little resemblance to the pliant and financially strapped counterpart the United States grew accustomed to dealing with in the 1990s.

"There is no question that if you compare the situation today with where we were 10 years ago, let's say, it is a lot easier for the Russians to say when we complain about things: 'Hey, we don't need to listen to you guys, we've got lots of oil revenue coming in, we're doing fine and who needs you,'" says James Goldgeier, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. "In a way that was not true 10 years ago when Boris Yeltsin was looking for assistance from the International Monetary Fund and other kinds of financial assistance."

Divided Administration

Goldgeier adds that the administration is not entirely united on Russia, with Cheney favoring a more confrontational approach than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"It's long been a mystery where the president comes down," Goldgeier says. "In his first term, the president certainly went out of his way to praise Putin, to argue that Putin was a democrat. We've seen less of that as time has gone on because it has become more difficult to make that case. It's hard for the president because presidents don't really like to confront their counterparts of major countries. So even if the president is concerned about where things are going, he wouldn't be talking about looking into Putin's soul today like he did in 2001."

So, this time around, expect less soul-searching and more talking business.

MORE: Follow the events of the G8 summit in Russian at the site of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

G8 Summit: St. Petersburg, July 15-17

A worker hangs G8 banners outside the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg (epa)

SITTING DOWN AT THE TABLE: On July 15-17, Russia hosts the leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in its northern capital, St. Petersburg. The event is a landmark in Russia's reemergence on the international stage after more than a decade of painful transition. In many ways, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the strongest and most confident of the leaders at the meeting, despite international concerns about the state of Russia's democratic development. Below are links to some of RFE/RL's reporting on the run-up to this major international event.

Confident Kremlin Prepares To Preside Over G8 Summit

G8 Foreign Ministers Meet To Map Out Summit Agenda

Opposition, NGOs Gather Ahead Of G8 Summit

Barroso Calls On G8 To Agree Global Energy Principles

G8 Presidency Spurs 'Exceptional' PR Response

MORE: Follow the coverage of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in Russian on the website of RFE/RL's Russian Service. An archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia in English.