U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin today begin what could prove to be a historic three-day summit at the White House and in Bush's home state of Texas. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, Washington and Moscow appear to be closing in on a deal on nuclear arms and national missile defense, despite the Bush administration's efforts to downplay the possibilities.
Washington, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the shadow of yet another U.S. air tragedy, President George W. Bush welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House today for a three-day summit expected to highlight improving relations between the former foes.
Putin arrived in Washington last night, hours after New York City suffered another major air disaster following the 11 September terrorist hijackings that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed some 5,000 people.
An American Airlines Airbus crashed shortly after take-off yesterday, killing all 260 people onboard and engulfing a small part of a New York City neighborhood in flames.
The tragedy -- the cause of which has not yet been determined -- appears likely to cast an air of solemnity over the summit, which is being heralded as a potential watershed in relations that could help turn the Cold War rivals into strategic partners in the political, military and economic spheres.
Since 11 September, U.S.-Russia ties have warmed considerably, with Moscow strongly backing Washington's war on terrorism, offering limited military assistance, and not objecting to the U.S. use of bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Leon Aron is a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank. Aron believes the events of 11 September simply hastened Russia to acknowledge that its economic, military, and strategic interests lie with the West.
Aron says the summit could mark the start of a whole new relationship: "Its potential importance extends beyond the U.S.-Russia cooperation, but goes to the heart of the changing priorities of Russia."
However, Bush administration officials have played down the possibility that the summit could produce a formal accord that would clear the way for U.S. plans to test a national missile-defense system, as well as slash the two countries' nuclear arsenals to under 2,000 warheads each from the current 6,000 or so.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said recently that the summit is unlikely to seal what she called a "red-ribbon" deal, but analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say they expect a major agreement is in the works.
Lee Feinstein, a one-time senior adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made this observation: "Whatever color the ribbon is, or even if it's wrapped up in newspaper or tin foil, this is a very significant step which the [Bush] administration deserves a lot of credit for."
Putin has lately indicated growing flexibility on missile-defense testing, which Russia has previously opposed as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
And the two sides appear closer on reducing nuclear stockpiles. Moscow has proposed cuts to about 1,500 warheads each, while the U.S. has said it wants to slash its arsenal to 1,750 to 2,250 warheads.
Despite improving relations since 11 September, however, Feinstein believes Bush and Putin laid the groundwork for an agreement on nuclear issues before the terrorist attacks. He says signs of a closer understanding had already emerged from the first two meetings between Bush and Putin last summer: "I don't think this [possible] agreement is a function of 11 September. I think the two presidents were headed toward an agreement on the nuclear issues with or without the atrocities of 11 September."
The presidents will also be addressing a range of other issues, including the military campaign in Afghanistan, trade, and perhaps Moscow's ties to Iran and Iraq -- both of which the U.S. says sponsor terrorism.
Analysts say Russia could win revocation of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik congressional amendment -- a Soviet-era stipulation that forced Russia to prove it did not restrict Jewish emigration in order to have normal trade relations with the U.S. Its scrapping would be a key boost to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
But Russia's business ties to Iraq and Iran -- where Moscow is helping to build a nuclear power plant the U.S. believes could aid Tehran's larger nuclear ambitions -- is a matter of concern to the U.S.
Putin has made it clear he is not willing to alter Moscow's relations with either country. As Feinstein says: "There has been some progress over the years, but it's still the skunk of the garden party and any effort to give significant assistance to Russia will always be subject to this issue."
Analysts say another issue that has taken a backseat to shared U.S.-Russian counterterrorism interests is the abuse of human rights and media rights in Russia. They say Bush has backed off criticism of the Russian war in Chechnya, saying that Moscow has cause to view that conflict as a battle against terrorists.
But an editorial in "The Washington Post" yesterday warned that Washington should not ignore human rights abuses in Russia simply because Moscow is becoming a closer partner.
Putin is scheduled to meet with Bush this morning at the White House, with a news conference to follow. Tomorrow, Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, travel to Bush's home state of Texas and his ranch in the town of Crawford, called "Prairie Chapel," where they will be serenaded by country-western musicians and eat barbecued beef cooked up by chefs in cowboy hats.
The Putins head to New York and the United Nations on 15 November.