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U.S./Russia: Smiles From Ljubljana -- Are U.S.-Russian Relations Really That Good?

  • Andrew Tully

The world was treated to images of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin smiling and laughing as the presidents of the U.S. and Russia met for the first time in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Bush even called Putin "trustworthy" after just one meeting. But as our correspondent Andrew Tully reports, profound differences remain between the two countries.

Washington, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A conference on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Washington on Monday was a good forum to gauge the new relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

When George W. Bush became the American president nearly five months ago, it was clear that his administration would make Russia less of a foreign-policy priority than did his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

But Russia's importance has increased since then. Bush spoke in Warsaw on Friday of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include the Baltic states -- a step that Moscow strongly opposes.

Yet on the very next day, Bush had a meeting in Ljubljana with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he described in amiable terms. On Monday, Bush restated this assessment.

"Conversation with President Putin was positive. It indicated to me that we can have a very frank and honest relationship, that there's areas where we can work together."

Evidently, Putin shares the sentiment. He telephoned Chinese President Jiang Zemin -- also on Monday -- to report that, like Russia, Beijing also has an opportunity to develop "wide-ranging and constructive" relations with Bush's administration.

As the Ljubljana summit was approaching, policy analysts in the U.S. and in Europe -- even in Russia -- agreed that the two men would focus less on substantive agreement and more on developing a rapport, or "chemistry," as the Americans call it. Television and newspaper images from Slovenia showed Bush and Putin smiling and laughing like old friends.

In fact, Washington and Moscow have much in common in a 21st-century world that at times seems as dangerous as it did during the Cold War. This was made clear during Monday's conference on the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Two important speakers at the forum agreed that the end of the Cold War led some to believe hastily that the threat of nuclear war had diminished dramatically.

One speaker was Igor Sergeyev, formerly Russia's defense minister, now Putin's adviser on strategic issues. He called this belief "unfounded" because "marginal nations" now have nuclear weapons. And he spoke emphatically about controlling the spread of these devices.

"The situation with the proliferation of nuclear arms is now more of concern than ever before."

Another speaker at the conference was Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a leading member of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. He is the co-author of legislation under which Washington helps Russia secure the weapons of the defunct Soviet Union that were left within the borders of four former Soviet states.

Lugar agreed with Sergeyev that the nuclear threat had shifted after the Soviet breakup of 1991. As he put it, the nuclear threat during the Cold War was "high-risk" and "low-probability." Today, he said, the risk is lower, but the probability is higher -- again because of proliferation.

The senator had praise for the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on making sure these weapons do not get into the wrong hands. But he also saw no immediate end to the two nations' dispute over Bush's plans to deploy a missile-defense system.

The American administration says the system is not meant to defend against Russia, but against what it calls "rogue states" -- North Korea and Iran, for instance. Russia counters that deployment would only generate a new arms race. Besides, it says, the missile-defense system would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972.

Like the possible admission of the Baltic states to NATO, the dispute over an American missile-defense system runs deep. And Lugar said a resolution is probably a long way off.

"Let there be no doubt: This will require heavy lifting [hard work]. Negotiations will not be easy or quick. A successful conclusion to these negotiations will require patience and statesmanship."

Another disagreement between the U.S. and Russia involves weapons proliferation itself. Washington accuses Moscow of helping Iran in its efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons program. Sergeyev was asked about that suspicion at Monday's forum in Washington. He replied -- as Russian officials have said before -- that Russia is helping Iran to build only a kind of nuclear power plant, and that this technology cannot be used to develop weapons.

The manner of Sergeyev's reply demonstrated the depth of difference between the U.S. and Russia on the issue. First, the former foreign minister accused his questioner of being ignorant of Moscow's relationship with Tehran. And he accused Washington of applying a double standard to this relationship, saying that the U.S. is simultaneously helping North Korea build a similar reactor.

Further evidence of distance between America and Russia was the reaction of some members of the U.S. Congress to Bush's positive appraisal of Putin. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) wondered how Bush could make so sweeping an assessment after only a single two-hour meeting.

And Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) expressed surprise that Bush called Putin "trustworthy." Biden noted that Putin once was an agent for the KGB in East Germany, and later was the director of Russia's internal intelligence service.

Biden dismissed the smiling images and warm talk from Ljubljana, and said he frankly does not trust Putin. As for Bush's assessment of the Russian president, the senator said he hopes Bush doesn't really believe his own praise.