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Experts: US-Russia Relations Driven by Bush, Putin Relationship


This has been a particularly active year in Russian-American relations, especially concerning high-profile summit meetings between Presidents Bush and Putin. The two men met in February in Slovakia and in May, President Bush traveled to Moscow for celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Now the American and Russian leaders will meet once again, this time at the White House on Friday.

Experts say one of the key factors in relations between the two countries is the warm relationship between the two presidents. Marshal Goldman, Russia expert with Harvard University, is one of the scholars who met with President Putin in Moscow last year and again, earlier this month.

"Last year, when we met with President Putin, in September 2004, it was clear there were close feelings and President Putin volunteered that he would have voted for, or supported, President Bush," said Mr. Goldman. "And remember, the election was just two months off, in November 2004. It was rather an unusual thing for the leader of a country, I think, to volunteer. But anyway, the point of it is he referred to him as 'George Bush.' This year, just a week ago, he just said George. He didn't say my friend, he simply said 'George did this' and he went on to explain how appreciative he was of the fact that President Bush had gone to Russia to celebrate the end of World War II [in Europe] - V-E Day."

For his part, Dale Herspring, a former State Department official [1971-91] and Russia expert at Kansas State University, says the Bush-Putin relationship took off after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

"I honestly think that we have reached a level of maturity in Russian-American relations because of the relationship between the two presidents," he said. "Remember, before 9/11, the relationship was not good. And on 9/11, Putin was the first one to call. Putin was the one who went on September 24, 2001 and told the military what don't you understand about cooperating with the Americans? And they [the Russians] were right up front, telling us here's what we know and I think that that had a profound effect on Bush."

However some analysts say close relationships between leaders, though advantageous, could have a negative effect. One of those is Russia expert Gordon Hahn (formerly with the Hoover Institution).

"Both of them have an interest in keeping the relationship at a certain level of comity [harmony] and of not having major crises," he explained. "But that again, is of limited value in terms of time. Once one of them is gone, problems can quickly arise."

Despite the openly friendly bonds, Mr. Hahn says there are areas of friction between the two sides.

"First of all, is the problem with Iran where the Russians have now twice, through two different official statements, stated that they are against the review of the Iranian nuclear program at the U.N. Security Council," he said. "Probably the second biggest issue, over the long-term, would be the China-Russian so-called strategic partnership. And over the short-term, it's probably the issue of central Asian bases and the apparent effort by China and Russia to convince the central Asian states, particularly Uzbekistan, to put a term limit on how long American bases can remain there."

The Bush administration has also been critical of what it perceives as anti-democratic moves in Russia, although some non-governmental organizations have said that criticism has not gone far enough. President Putin's moves to consolidate power in the hands of the presidency has prompted the human rights organization "Freedom House" to downgrade Russia in its survey on global freedom from a "partly free" society to "not free."

There is also concern in the Bush administration about whether Russia's nuclear weapons arsenal is secure enough to avoid falling into the hands of terrorists.

Experts do not expect major breakthroughs during Friday's meeting. Most of them say the best thing that can come out of it is continuity: in other words, continuing good relations between the two presidents.

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