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Experts Say US-Russian Relations Driven by Relationship Between Bush and Putin

President George Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have held numerous meetings this past year. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the state of relations between Washington and Moscow.

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 Two in Europe. In September, Mr. Bush hosted the Russian president at the White House. The two men also met on the sidelines of the meeting of the eight leading industrialized democracies in Scotland in July -- and on the periphery of a regional meeting (APEC) in South Korea in November.

Many western experts on Russia say one of the key factors in relations between the two countries is the warm bond between the two presidents.

Marshal Goldman, Russia expert with Harvard University, says the rapport between the two men has solidified over the years. He says that was evident during meetings the Russian President held with U.S. scholars -- the first meeting in September of last year, when Mr. Goldman says Mr. Putin talked about the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

"And then he went into a description of George Bush and he said: 'We can trust him, we can get along with each other, we have this kind of relationship' -- which I thought, given the closeness of the American election, was rather an undiplomatic statement to make -- and basically endorsing President Bush, which most leaders are reluctant to do, to endorse a leader of another country. This year, when we met with President Putin, he didn't talk about 'George Bush,' he talked about 'George' - which showed again this increasing warmth between the two. And then he said he appreciated the fact that President Bush came to Moscow and St. Petersburg to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II (in Europe) - or VE day. So there is this, really, an unnecessarily warm expression on the part of President Putin, that is really quite a fascinating relationship," he said.

Many experts say the good relationship between Presidents Putin and Bush is a double-edged sword. They say it has hindered Mr. Bush's ability to "get tough" with Mr. Putin when events dictate. One of those experts is Michael McFaul with the Hoover Institution.

"The policy could never be, toward any country: I want to have good relations with the leader of that country. That's not an objective of policy -- that's a means to an effective policy," he said. "And I think the president has to look at this friendly relationship which he has courted with Mr. Putin -- and I'm always for better relations rather than worse relations with countries -- but he has to say: 'what have I gotten out of it?' and I think when the crunch comes, and Putin does things that are just egregious to standard behavior of being a partner of the west, Bush has to say to his friend: 'look, this just doesn't stand up. You have to rethink this.' And I just haven't seen enough evidence, I guess, that the president is using his personal relationship to try to influence Putin in a more positive way."

U.S. officials say they continue to be critical of what they see as an authoritarian trend in Russia. Experts say, during the past several years, Mr. Putin has centralized power in the presidency, weakened the strength of independent political parties and reined in the national media.

During a recent trip to Brussels (12/7/05), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern about legislation making its way through the Russian parliament that - if passed in its present form - would severely limit the activities of non-governmental organizations.

"Democracy is built, of course, on elections and it's built on parliaments and it's built on principles like the rule of law and freedom of speech. But it is also built on the ability of citizens to associate themselves freely and work to bring their government into a particular direction. And the role of non-governmental organizations that have been working in Russia and in other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, are simply trying to help citizens to organize themselves better, to petition their government to make changes in the policies that affect their very lives," she said.

Experts say while both sides can disagree on various issues, there are no burning themes, no major areas of friction between Washington and Moscow -- unlike Soviet times, for example, when human rights and arms control dominated virtually every meeting between American and Soviet leaders.

Dale Herspring, former State Department official (1971-91) and Russia expert at Kansas State University, says one also shouldn't expect major agreements to come out of every Bush-Putin meeting.

"These people have gone beyond that. Putin and Bush can meet and they don't have to come up with any big agreement - they simply meet to talk about things. They talk about Iran. They meet to talk about whether they are going to be banning NGOs (non-governmental organizations), or things like that. We're missing the boat if we expect every time these two guys meet to have an agreement. In the communist days, it was different," he said.

Looking ahead, many experts don't expect much change in U.S.-Russian relations in the next year. Michael McFaul, from the Hoover Institution, says it will be more of the same -- what he calls a stable but stagnant relationship. "That is we are not moving in an antagonistic way. Our presidents definitely have a genuine, personal relationship that they both think is important and vital to their respective countries. But they are not looking to do anything new or creative, to try to make U.S.-Russian relations better or more comprehensive," he said.

Experts say concrete accords could take place during a meeting in St. Petersburg next year, when Russia hosts a summit of the world's eight leading industrialized democracies.