Accessibility links

U.S.: Bush, Putin Summit Could Mark Historic Shift In Relations

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Since the September terrorist attacks on the United States, a new era has been heralded in relations between Washington and Moscow. But whether a historic shift in relations has truly occurred may be better determined this week when Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in the U.S. for a key summit that will include a night at the Texas ranch of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Washington, 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Washington tonight (Monday) for a historic summit with President George W. Bush that will include a night at Bush's Texas ranch as well as talks that could mark a major turning-point in relations between the former Cold War foes.

Bush administration officials say the summit is unlikely to produce any concrete agreement that would clear the way for a U.S. missile shield program or cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. But some analysts are taking a more positive view of the summit, saying a deal appears likely.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, told a news conference last week that following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., the two countries had embarked on a new relationship in several areas, including the business, military, and political spheres. Moscow has strongly backed the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Rice said the summit is unlikely to produce a major "red-ribbon" agreement -- as is often expected of such high-level meetings. But some analysts told RFE/RL they expect a significant deal will be announced.

Leon Aron is a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. As Aron put it:

"I think on the short-range, tactical issues -- such as ABM, such as nuclear arsenals -- there is going be an agreement, definitely. Otherwise Bush would not have invited Putin essentially to his home."

Broadly, the agreement is expected to enable the U.S. to pursue plans to test a nuclear missile defense shield. Russia had originally opposed such testing as a violation of the 1972 ABM treaty, but Putin recently has indicated growing flexibility on the issue.

In an interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC last week, Putin said he was certain that the treaty could allow testing of a missile defense shield.

Bush has said such a shield is even more necessary in light of the attacks on New York and Washington. Last week, National Security Adviser Rice repeated the administration's commitment to developing a missile shield:

"The president is committed to a robust testing and evaluation program and eventually deployment."

U.S. officials have said that the Bush administration is considering decreasing the size of the American nuclear arsenal to between 1,750 to 2,250 warheads. As Moscow, too, has proposed lowering long-range missiles to below 2,000 (each country is currently estimated to hold 6,000), analysts say an agreement on this issue should also be expected.

Ties between the former rivals have warmed significantly since 11 September, when Washington asked for Russian support in its new war on terrorism. Analysts say Putin seized the moment in a historic bid that could eventually put Russia firmly in the West for the first time in history.

Moscow has come to Washington's aid by offering limited military assistance and by not objecting to U.S. use of bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Putin has also strongly backed the U.S.-led action in Afghanistan.

Lee Feinstein, a one-time senior adviser to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, says he believes the U.S.-Russia relationship is genuinely heading in a new direction.

But he said 11 September is not the only explanation for Putin's dramatic shift, which is opposed by many in the Russian military as well as former communist circles:

"I think President Putin has shown that he understands that the economic future of Russia and the security future of Russia lie with the West. And that the American nuclear arsenal, for example, or NATO enlargement, aren't real dangers to Russia. Real dangers to Russia come from the south."

Still, two issues stand out as possible problems in the relationship -- Russia's ties to Iran and Iraq.

The U.S. says the two countries sponsor terrorism, and senior Bush administration officials told reporters last week that the president would discuss the issue with Putin. Russia has business relations with both Iran and Iraq.

Moscow recently sealed a conventional arms deal with Tehran and is helping it to build a nuclear power plant, which U.S. officials say Iran could use for its larger nuclear ambitions. Putin denies Russia has provided Iran with any dangerous weapons, but experts say private Russian firms may have done just that.

And Russia still maintains close ties to Iraq, which date to Soviet times.

Feinstein, however, says he thinks Bush will overcome these hurdles by shifting the emphasis onto the shared interests of counterterrorism:

"Although the United States isn't particularly happy about large-scale conventional arms sales between Russia and Iran, maybe [there will be] less emphasis on that but greater emphasis on anything that might be used in a weapons of mass destruction program."

Feinstein also said the two countries share interests vis-a-vis Baghdad. He said the U.S. will sooner or later need Russia's support for a new United Nations sanctions regime against the government of Saddam Hussein, which is heavily in debt to Moscow:

"Developing smart sanctions, with UN approval, is probably the best way to do two things that both countries want: one is to do whatever we can to prevent [Iraq] from redeveloping its weapons of mass destruction capabilities, and two, getting Russia money it's owed in billions of dollars in debts from Iraq."

In recent weeks, analysts have pointed to a host of other issues on which Russia and the U.S. could cooperate. They say that Russia, second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production, could soon loom larger in U.S. oil strategy. And Moscow, in turn, could benefit from American help on issues ranging from corporate investment to assistance in military and legal reform.

Aron of the American Enterprise Institute says if Bush and Putin are serious about these larger issues, the summit could prove to be far more significant than just an agreement on nuclear arms -- signifying, in effect, a truly new relationship.

The two presidents are scheduled to meet each other in Washington along with their national security teams on 13 November, followed by lunch with senior Bush administration officials to discuss economic and business issues.

The following day, Putin and his wife Lyudmila will arrive at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and will stay through 15 November. Rice said they will have both dinner and breakfast with Bush and his wife, Laura.