|President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush board Air Force One, Friday|
When President Bush visits Latvia Friday and Saturday, he will be underlining the strength of the U.S. alliance with the small Baltic state and its neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania. The Baltic nations see the Bush visit as a clear signal to Russia that they are now part of the West.
Latvia, like Estonia and Lithuania, were occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II and only managed to regain their freedom a half-century later, in 1991.
In the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, which Mr. Bush will attend in Moscow, the Baltic countries have insisted that Russia should acknowledge the Soviet occupation and apologize for it.
But Russia, which regards the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, at the cost of 27 million lives, as the Soviets' finest hour, has been reluctant to admit that it invaded the Baltics and has portrayed the Red Army as a liberator rather than an occupier.
This week, Mr. Bush, in a letter to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, said the end of World War II marked a tragic moment for the Baltic states because the three countries were occupied against their will by Soviet troops.
That sparked a testy rebuke from Russia, which insisted that the Soviet Union had not forcibly occupied the Baltic nations but was invited in.
Nicholas Redman, a Russia expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London research institute, says Mr. Bush is doing the right thing by balancing his attendance at the Moscow celebrations with an acknowledgement that the end of the war did not benefit the Baltic states.
"I think it was quite important before President Bush goes to Moscow and recognizes the enormous contribution that the Soviet Union and the Soviet people made in defeating fascism that he also recognizes that there are elements of Soviet behavior at the time that were not acceptable," Mr. Redman said.
The leaders of Estonia and Lithuania are not attending the Moscow celebrations because of what they say is Russia's reluctance to acknowledge the Soviet Union's sins before, during and after the war. Ms. Vike-Freiberga says she is only going to question Russia's interpretation of history.
Mr. Redman says it is important for Russia to come clean about what happened in the past.
"It is one of the more worrying elements of Russian foreign policy today that they still refuse to acknowledge what happened in 1945 in terms of annexing not only the Baltic states but also occupying other East European countries," he added.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski says he is going to the Moscow celebrations but wants the Russian government to acknowledge that the end of World War II did not bring freedom to those countries, like his own, that were occupied by Soviet troops after the conflict.