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Russia/U.S.: Ljubljana Summit May Be More About 'Chemistry' Than Actual Issues

By Sophie Lambroschini/Breffni O'Rourke

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time on 16 June in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. Both leaders will bring to the table strong opinions about two divisive issues in U.S.-Russian relations: NATO's eastward expansion and Bush's plans to build a missile defense shield and abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But analysts say the meeting is unlikely to produce any major agreements on key policy issues. Instead, it will be an opportunity for Bush and Putin to test their personal "chemistry" and lay the groundwork for future meetings. Some analysts also say that it is now Europe, and not the United States, that Russia sees as its key diplomatic partner.

Moscow/Prague, 14 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have no shortage of topics to discuss in their first face-to-face meeting in Ljubljana on 16 June.

There is, to begin with, the divisive issue of NATO expansion and the possible entry of the Baltic states -- former Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- into the Western military alliance.

Russia, which continues to consider the Baltic states part of its sphere of influence, has strongly opposed the countries' entry bids. But Bush in recent days has confirmed the U.S. commitment to seeing "qualified democracies" join the alliance, saying further NATO expansion was just a matter of time:

"It's not a question of 'whether' -- it is a question of 'when.' We firmly believe NATO should expand. There is a process for member applicants to go through and we support that process. I will also say that no nation should have a veto over who is admitted into NATO."

Another source of contention is Bush's controversial missile defense plan, which has sparked criticism among the United States' European allies as well as from Russia and China. Russia has argued that the plan would nullify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and subsequent disarmament agreements, and lead to a new arms race. The United States, in turn, has warily noted Russia's continued arms sales to China as well as so-called "rogue nations" like Iran -- whose potential to launch missile attacks against Washington and its allies has spurred Bush's support for missile defense.

But analysts say that no major progress on divisive issues like these are likely to take place during the presidents' first official meeting, which is expected to last only two hours. Instead, the summit is seen as a chance for Bush and Putin to get acquainted and establish the tone for future bilateral relations.

Viktor Kremenyuk is an analyst with the USA and Canada Institute think-tank in Moscow. He says Putin's team will be using the summit to get a sense of what he called Bush's "genuine" outlook toward Russia:

"I think this is still a pre-negotiation summit. We know the number of issues there are between us and the United States. We know every step on the agenda -- on security, on regional problems, on bilateral relations. All that is well known. What is not known is the following: Will [future] relations be friendly and searching for common solutions, or will they be tough, with [each side] confronting the other from a forceful position?"

Bush and Putin appear to have little desire to rekindle the famously friendly relations of their predecessors, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Their official relationship got off to an especially prickly start earlier this year, when Bush expelled dozens of Russian diplomats from Washington in the wake of the discovery that a U.S. FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, had spent nearly 15 years spying for Russia.

In Russia, the summit itself is seen as a victory of Moscow diplomacy. The two leaders were originally scheduled to meet only in July at the G-7 plus Russia summit in Genoa. Initial attempts by Russia to arrange an earlier meeting were rejected by Washington, which many saw as an attempt by the Bush administration to punish Russia for its failure to comply on defense issues.

But Kremenyuk says it is still too early to determine what the long-term prospects will be for Bush-Putin relations:

"[The nature of relations] are unclear, because the U.S. has a new president and it's not clear to them [the Americans] what's going on in Russia. [It's not clear] because everyone is disappointed by the former stage in Russian-U.S. relations. That's why we haven't yet received a gesture, a signal, about whether or not the United States intends to continue partnership relations with Russia or not."

Kremenyuk points out that personal relations have been the keystone of diplomatic relations between the two countries since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But, he adds, that focus actually reveals the potential fragility of U.S.-Russian relations:

"Since [Russia and the U.S.] declared in 1993 that we were strategic partners, a lot has depended on whether or not the two presidents get along. That's a minus. We should have gone over to institutionalized relations a long time ago. Relations that would be reinforced by some 'cushions' -- like the relations between the United States and China, which are cushioned by trade and investment, things that can soften [crises] like when the [U.S.] surveillance plane was shot down, for example."

Other analysts agree that the time has come to downplay the personal nature of U.S.-Russian relations.

Sergei Karaganov, the head of Moscow's Foreign and Defense Policy Council think-tank, told the Reuters news agency that Russia wants what he called "normal, quiet, constructive relations [with the United States], without confrontation." He added that Russia's foreign policy, while not working "against America," is now focused more on Europe.

Indeed, although the European Union will not be represented at the Ljubljana summit, it stands to be deeply affected by its results. Geographically sandwiched between the U.S. and Russia, Europe is naturally affected by tensions between the former Cold-War rivals.

Analysts say a successful meeting between Bush and Putin will help further improve the reasonably cordial relations between the EU and Moscow. A bad summit, however, may increase uncertainty about these relations.

London-based independent security analyst Alexandra Ashbourne points to the fragility of the situation. She says: "The EU is still quite uncertain of how to treat Russia. Should they still treat Russia as a superpower, or should they treat it as a partner that has fallen on hard times but which could reassert itself? I mean, it is something [that former president Boris] Yeltsin said many years ago already: that the West does not know how to handle Russia."

Ashbourne notes the broad spectrum of opinions in Europe about Russia. She describes the post-Cold War attitudes of governments in France, Germany -- and more lately, Britain -- as pro-Russian. By contrast, she says, the new NATO members in Central Europe -- Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic -- have what she calls a "historic loathing" of Russia. But at the same time, those countries, which have yet to join the EU, still have important trade links with Russia that cannot be neglected.

Another London-based security analyst, Daniel Keohane of the Center for European Reform, says Europeans should not expect substantive results from the Slovenia summit, which he, like others, sees mainly as a session allowing the two leaders to get acquainted. But he points out that the EU will be looking very closely at the meeting nevertheless:

"In particular, I think the EU wants to ensure that the Bush team is taking Russian views and Russian concerns on board. There was a worry among EU leaders in the past few months that the Bush team had been a little dismissive of what the Russians were saying and not taking their views into account, which of course creates problem for the Europeans. They [the Europeans] will want to see a more constructive [U.S.-Russian] relationship. And they would see this summit as a basis for that."

Reducing tensions between Washington and Moscow, Ashbourne adds, should be at the forefront of the summit's concerns:

"The best-case solution would probably be some sort of statement showing that Putin will not actively oppose America's development of the missile defense technology, and which suggests some sort of partnership [between Washington and Moscow]."

All in all, the relationship between the United States and Russia may not have the pivotal importance that it once had, but it is still capable of influencing a wide spectrum of countries in Europe.