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Analysts Predict Difficult Talks for Presidents Putin and Bush in Washington

  • Lisa McAdams

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush are due to hold their second round of summit-level talks in as many months later this week in Washington (Friday). VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow takes a look at the state of relations between the two nations.

The trend in the U.S.-Russian relationship is downward, if you listen to analysts and pundits these days.

From Washington's criticism of what officials see as President Putin's increasing trend toward authoritarian-style rule to Moscow's counter-claim of U.S. interference in traditional zones of Russian influence, the language and tone coming from these two parties is nothing if not strained.

Yevgeni Volk heads the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. He says that strain will be in evidence during the upcoming talks between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin in Washington.

"He (Putin) would like to convince George W. Bush that everything is okay, that Russia is following its own way, that it is protecting its own national interests, that Russian democracy cannot be measured by Western standards - that it has its own way of development, it has its own national interests in post-Soviet space, that it has to protect its political and economic interests," said Yevgeni Volk. "I think it won't be very convincing for America because, indeed, America has its own interests. So, I believe there are few opportunities to bridge the gap, which really exists between Russia and America at present."

Mr. Volk says that gap extends from disagreements about the Iraq crisis to differing views over the nature of Iran's nuclear program, which the United States believes could be used for military purposes. He says there are also tensions stemming from Russia's recent joint military exercises with China, a nation Russia is increasingly courting as its relations with the United States cool.

According to Mr. Volk, there is also concern about Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, as well as what has been called by some "a roll-back" of democracy in Russian politics and in the media.

Compounding the problem, according to Mr. Volk, is that Russia believes it should have a large role on the world stage, as the Soviet Union once did.

"Moscow's mentality is still based on the perception of Russia as the natural successor to the Soviet Union and still a superpower, which could be an actor in world relations, and which is on an equal footing with the United States," he said.

Viktor Kremenyuk is the deputy head of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute. He says one area where Russia is really upset is over the recent loss of influence in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where people power revolutions swept away long-time Soviet-style leaders and ushered in new leaders calling for democratic reform and Western-oriented economic principles.

Mr. Kremenyuk says President Putin has been slow to adjust to the new role of his country, preferring to see things from a traditional Soviet stance.

"I'm not sure that Mr. Putin is prepared psychologically to suggest something like a cooperation with U.S. in the post-Soviet space," he said. "It would be the best possible solution because both nations may cooperate in the Caspian Sea, which is strategically important to both, in Ukraine, which is strategically important to both, even in Central Asia. But still, I think that in this case, the strength of the power of the Cold War thinking prevails and is much more powerful than (that of) cooperative thinking."

Analyst Kremenyuk says the public tensions are spilling over into the personal relationship, which he characterizes as "tentative" at best. Gone are the heady days of the late 1990s, he says, when Presidents Putin and Bush first met and declared themselves friends.

Since that time, Mr. Kremenyuk says both sides have a growing feeling of disenchantment about the relationship.

"Mr. Putin wanted more and more support for what he is doing domestically, and Mr. Bush declined to do that," he said. "Mr. Bush wanted more support from Mr. Putin in building his foreign strategy - not only regarding international terrorism, but generally in establishing the new lines of Pax-Americana - and Mr. Putin also declined to be helpful in that. He was unreliable, he was playing, conveying games with the Chinese, with the Germans and the French, he was never a loyal partner to Mr. Bush and so there is a growing disappointment on both sides."

Mr. Volk of the Heritage Foundation says many experts in Moscow and Washington now believe that relations between the two former Cold War adversaries are at their worst point in the 14 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The analysts believe this week's meeting will prove difficult for both presidents, as they seek to be seen not as being at a stand-still, but rather as advancing what they have both said is their growing strategic relationship.