President Bush and other world leaders were in Moscow last month to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe.
Ron Suny is an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union, teaching at the University of Chicago. He says the Moscow festivities were very important for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Professor Suny says, "Putin had made it clear that for him and for many, many people in Russia itself, the victory in World War Two was a kind of colossal, sacred event. After all, 27 million people had died. Let's remember that it was the Soviet Union, really, that defeated Nazi Germany: they faced three-quarters of the Nazi troops. The Soviet army was already in Poland when the Americans and the British landed at Normandy on D-Day. So this was an attempt to recognize, once again, the great achievement of the Soviet Union in winning that tremendous victory."
President Bush's presence in Moscow also gave him the opportunity to meet one-on-one with his Russian counterpart. The two leaders met at Mr. Putin's dacha outside Moscow and they took a brief ride in the Russian president's antique 1956 Volga automobile.
Experts say the personal rapport between the two men established over the years has been a key factor in Russian-American relations. Marshal Goldman is a long-time Russia expert with Harvard University.
According to Mr. Goldman, "The two leaders have an agreement that they will work with each other. They also, I think, understand that their constituencies have very different feelings: a growing criticism from Americans about what's happening in Russia and growing criticism from Russia about Americans or America's political, international stance. But the two leaders try to hold this thing together in ways that are, I think, quite remarkable."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters after the meeting the relationship between the two leaders is, in her words, absolutely straightforward. "They say what they think, they say what they mean and then they act on that."
Some analysts say close relationships between leaders, though advantageous, could
have a negative effect. One of those is Russian expert Gordon Hahn. He says, "Ultimately, that relationship is important, but I wouldn't want to overstate it. And the problem with relationships, inter-state relationships based on that kind of relationship, once one of the partners changes or both of them are changed, things can rapidly deteriorate."
Despite the openly friendly bonds, analysts point to areas of friction between the two sides. The Bush administration has been critical of what it perceives as anti-democratic moves in Russia. Moscow and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on Russia's role in Iran, helping that country's nuclear program, and they disagree on Moscow's plans to sell antiaircraft missiles to Syria. There is also concern about whether Russia's nuclear weapons arsenal is secure enough to avoid so-called "loose nukes" falling into the hands of terrorists.
Experts say President Putin is playing a more active role on the international stage, especially in the Middle East. He recently traveled to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, seeking to raise Russia's profile. Professor Suny says that could become a potential problem.
Professor Sunny adds, "The United States would love to see, I'm sure, a stable and democratic Russia. But they are not particularly interested in recreating the kind of strong Russia that the Soviet Union was: a power that could limit, challenge the global hegemony of the United States."
During President Bush's recent trip to Moscow, no breakthroughs were announced and no formal agreements were signed. Harvard University's Marshal Goldman saw the meeting more as a way to keep the relationship going.
Mr. Goldman says, "It does show again this close relationship between Bush and
Putin. And I think that is essential to prevent the relationship from becoming much more abrasive, because without that bonding between the two leaders, we would be much more critical of each other. We get along, we disagree, we compete - but that's the world. It would be inevitable that two big countries would bump into each other periodically. And I think we're bumping into each other, but we've learned to live with it."
Experts expect more concrete developments during a meeting in St. Petersburg next year, when Russia hosts a summit of the world's major industrialized nations.
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