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Russia: Bush-Putin Summit Offers Colorful Details, But Little Of Substance

  • Francesca Mereu

In Russia, as in the United States, coverage of the three-day summit between presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush was slightly overtaken by the dramatic events in Afghanistan. Many Russian newspapers preferred to concentrate on the day the leaders spent at Bush's Texas ranch, putting the actual achievements of the summit far below details of what Bush and Putin ate, drank, and wore during their fourth face-to-face meeting.

Moscow, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the Russian press, expectations for the U.S.-Russia summit seemed low even in the days preceding the meeting.

While many Western newspapers hinted at a possible breakthrough on discussions over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and U.S. plans to proceed with testing of a missile defense shield, Russian commentators often took a more cautious approach -- or focused on other news altogether, as was the case with Monday's plane crash in New York City and the dramatic turn of events in Afghanistan.

One commentator on Russian state television (Mikhail Leontev, host of "Odnako"), criticized the Western press for its expectation that Russia would use the summit to ask for something in return for its partnership role in antiterrorism efforts.

Saying "the idea of gratitude" does not exist in Russian political culture, he added that Russia was not heading into the summit with a "wish list" of favors it wanted from the U.S. -- even if that was difficult for the West to believe.

In the end, Putin walked away with a solid, if unremarkable, gain -- a pledge from Bush to slash the U.S. nuclear arsenal: "Current levels of our nuclear forces do not reflect today's strategic realities. I have informed President Putin that the United States will reduce our operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next decade, a level fully consistent with American security."

The Russian president -- who has been under serious financial pressure to make similar cuts in his own outsized arsenal -- indicated he would respond in kind. Putin also downplayed the dispute over the 1972 ABM Treaty and U.S. plans for a missile defense shield, which would violate the treaty's terms.

"The [U.S.] administration has its own approach to how this problem can be solved. I do not have any doubts, however. No matter which scenario unfolds, our bilateral relationship will not deteriorate from the level that it is at now, and at the end of the day we will be able to arrive at a solution that will be acceptable for everyone involved."

Despite Putin's call for a written agreement on any arms cuts, some Russian papers said it was clearly Bush who was calling the shots at the summit.

The "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily pointed to what it called "the new rules of the strategic game: Bush insists and Putin doubts." In the past, the paper said, even minor agreements meant lengthy approval procedures. Now, it says, an agreement can seemingly be made by "shaking hands." Still, the paper welcomed what it called a gesture of "American goodwill," noting that the U.S., unlike Russia, can still afford to keep a large arsenal.

The "Izvestia" newspaper was even more reserved in its response to the agreement. Describing the summit as "unlikely to be remembered as revolutionary," it said the arms agreement had been "predicted and expected" and that Bush merely "announced the levels the United States thought [Russia] could accept."

The apparent failure of the two leaders to strike a deal on the ABM Treaty and missile defense -- as well as Putin's repeated wish to see Russia enjoy closer relations with NATO -- were duly mentioned by the press. But Russian journalists, denied any major policy advances, seemed content to focus on the Texas leg of the summit (14 November evening and 15 November).

"It was the 'idee fixe' of the American president to show Vladimir Putin the canyons [on his ranch]," a correspondent in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote, adding that in the end, the rainy weather precluded such an outing. The article continued, describing Bush's "Prairie Chapel" ranch as "a fairly modest one-story house, where the U.S. president spends even more time that Vladimir Putin spends in [his dacha] in Sochi."

It also noted that the gathered contingent of top U.S. and Russian officials at one point in the evening sang "Happy Birthday" to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.