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Russia/U.S.: Will Bush-Putin Summit Highlight Discord Or Detente?

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

Prague, 23 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are due to meet for a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 24 February at a time of renewed political tension between the two countries. On a personal level, both Bush and Putin have recently reaffirmed their friendship. But the mutual suspicion and public criticism expressed by senior officials in the foreign policy and defense establishments of both countries is reminiscent of Cold War times. Is the U.S.-Russian relationship imperiled as the two leaders sit down for talks at Bratislava Castle? What are the expectations for this summit?

On paper, the list of issues dividing the United States and Russia keeps getting longer.

The last time the two leaders met for a bilateral summit was at Camp David in September 2003. They tried at the time to patch over differences from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Russia’s civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Since then, the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovskii and the dismembering of his Yukos oil company have raised questions about the rule of law and security of foreign investments in Russia.

Georgia’s Rose Revolution has brought a pro-U.S. government headed by the flamboyant Mikheil Saakashvili to power. In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution has thwarted Russia’s plans for a pro-Moscow transfer of power in Ukraine. Russia has announced plans to sell missiles to Syria and criticized U.S. policies in Afghanistan. The United States has condemned Vladimir Putin’s drive to further centralize political power.

Recent Rhetoric

The exchange of rhetoric between the two sides has heated up. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in February ridiculed U.S. ambitions to spread democracy around the world, saying democracy was not a potato that could be transplanted from one field to another.

President Bush, speaking on 21 February in Brussels, reiterated U.S. concerns that Russia was returning to its old authoritarian ways.

"For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law," Bush said. "We recognize that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power, and the rule of law. And the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."

These developments prompt some to ask whether the United States and Russia still share major common interests and whether the partnership declared between the two countries in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States is about to be buried in Bratislava.

Common Interests

The consensus among analysts inside and outside Russia appears to be that both countries do continue to share common interests -- in pursuing Islamic terror groups, in preventing weapons proliferation, in maintaining stability in potential flashpoints such as the Korean peninsula, and, perhaps, in pursuing joint energy projects.

That is reflected in the summit agenda, which will focus on the war against terror, the situation in the Middle East, nonproliferation, and possible cooperation in expanding global emergency energy reserves.

One concrete measure expected to be signed will be an accord to tighten controls on the sale of portable antiaircraft missiles.

But talk of a strategic partnership -- at least in the short term -- might indeed be dead. Expectations for the summit are low, said Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Research in Moscow, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin.

"I think we should not expect any improvement [in relations] or any worsening [in relations] from this summit," Markov said. "I think both sides will stick to their former positions and will confirm that having been elected to new terms in office, the two presidents will continue to stick to their former policies. There are no crises and no breakthroughs."

Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank in the Netherlands, put it this way: "I do think we have raised unrealistic expectations in the past. The concept of ‘strategic partnership’ is probably the most inflated concept in world politics. If you look at how many sides -- both the United States and the European Union -- have promised strategic partnership to, it’s just impossible to put real meat behind all of those words, with all of those partners. And I think it should always have been clear that Russia is a different case on some of these issues and it will be very hard to talk about strategic partnerships."

'Enlarging Freedom'

Since his reelection, President Bush, along with his new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has emphasized the U.S. mission in supporting the growth of freedom and democracy around the world. But De Spiegeleire said the United States has shown it can also be flexible when dealing with allied regimes far less democratic than Russia’s.

"Even in this new era of enlarging the area of freedom, the United States is perfectly willing, for strategic reasons, to [cast a blind eye on] what’s happening in Pakistan, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, what’s happening in a lot of other parts of the world where strategic interests seem to override ideological impulses," De Spiegeleire said.

To be fair, De Spiegeleire noted, unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, there appears to be very little concern among Russians that the Kremlin is eroding democracy, making it hard for the West to justify too much criticism of Putin.

"It’s very hard for the West -- it could be very counterproductive for the West -- to hammer too hard on this issue if even within Russia there’s a very, very small constituency," De Spiegeleire said. "Let’s not put too fine a point on this. The liberal democratic parties in Russia -- both Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces -- are actually in political popularity. It’s very unlikely that even if they unite -- and it’s very unlikely in my mind that they will do so -- but even if they were to unite, they might probably get 2-3 percent of the vote. They would certainly not be able to clear the 7 percent hurdle [for parliamentary representation.]"

Modest Goals

The goals for Bush at the summit will be modest: to ensure the U.S.-Russian relationship stays on an even keel and to perhaps soften the impact of Russia’s cooperation with Iran and Syria -- states Washington regards as adversaries.

"On all of these issues, Russia will ultimately do what it wants to do," De Spiegeleire said. "But I do think there might be a certain amount of leverage in the exact way in which these things are implemented. Let’s take the example of Iran. Obviously, it is Russia’s prerogative, if it so wants, to continue this nuclear program. But there might be certain guarantees that they can give on the return of the nuclear fuel back to Russia after it’s been used in the Iranian nuclear reactor. So those are things that can be done. On the air-defense issue, we certainly want to make sure that Syria does not get the latest S-400 technology. Russia will sell air defense technology, it has already committed to doing so, but there are still certain aspects of the deal that might be influenced. And I’m sure that President Bush will pick these things up. So again, it’s [about] trying to limit the damage of some of these things that Russia really wants to do."

In the wake of the Rose and Orange revolutions, Putin might seek U.S. assurances that Washington is not seeking to cut Moscow off from what it regards as its traditional sphere of influence.

Markov, in Moscow, said America has only itself to blame for the fact that Russia is reaching out to markets like Iran and Syria, since U.S. defense industries have been aggressively encroaching on some of Russia’s long-standing export markets.

"In reality, the Americans are completely responsible for Russia’s cooperation with Syria and Iran because they have squeezed Russia out of the technology market and do not allow Russia’s high technology industry -- which is tied to military-industrial industries and nuclear energy production -- any breathing space," Markov said.

As is apparent ahead of the Bratislava summit, both sides have plenty of fodder for disagreement but also some strategic goals in common. Everyone will be looking to Bush and Putin to see whether they choose to highlight discord or detente.