Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Shanghai for his third summit meeting with President George Bush.
The first two meetings were overshadowed by significant differences over a variety of key issues, U.S. plan for a national missile defense and NATO expansion heading that list. While those issues remain to be resolved, there are indications that the two countries are being drawn together following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Just a few months ago, Russia and the United States seemed to be on a collision course. President Bush's determination to go ahead with plans for a national missile defense, and Russian opposition to it, overshadowed whatever positives were coming out the first two meetings between the two leaders.
Since September 11, however, it seems Russian support for America overshadows [dominates] everything else. Perhaps the most visible indication of that change came Wednesday when Mr. Putin announced Russia will close two military bases that had become symbols of the Cold War, a radar station in Cuba and the Cam Ranh Bay navy base in Vietnam.
The Russian military considered the Cuban base, especially, to be very important - a cornerstone, in fact, of their defensive strategy. Many analysts here say there was significant opposition to the closure among senior military officials.
The Kremlin said the bases were going to be closed for economic reasons, but many here, including independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, believe there is more to it than that. "This is a watershed. Apparently, the Russian President Vladimir Putin is serious about ending the vestiges of the Cold War confrontations with the United States and actually becoming a sort of Western ally," Mr. Felgenhauer says.
President Putin has repeatedly expressed his solid support for the United States in its fight against terrorism, a position he repeated on the eve of his departure for the Shanghai summit.
Mr. Putin said Russia was among the first to start the fight against terrorism and recognized that it cannot succeed by limiting the campaign to national boundaries. He said that a threat to your neighbor's house is not always perceived as a threat to your own. Mr. Putin said that no matter where the terrorists are, in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taleban, in the Middle East, in the Balkans or Chechnya, they should know that justice will inevitably find them.
Such a statement come at a time when many Russians are expressing concerns about a war so close to home. According to a recent poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center, 57 percent of Moscow residents disapprove of the U.S. led campaign, while 41 percent approve. Forty-seven percent of the 400 people polled said Russia should remain neutral, 30 percent said it should provide only limited support. Thirteen percent favor decisive Russian action.
Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said Mr. Putin's support for America and the Russian decision on base closings are reasons for optimism.
"Events of the 11th of September have indicated several things. First, there is a threat that is much more realistic, much more important, than a possible threat which may come from either Russia or the United States toward each other," Mr. Kremenyuk says. "Second, that this new type of threat may unite the U.S. and Russia and they may be regarded as a common interest a common concern. And third, that there are no obstacles for both nations to act together," he says.
Mr. Kremenyuk says Mr. Putin and others in the Russian leadership really do believe that the Cold War is over and things must change. The Russian government position seems also to have won support from international financial circles. There has been a flood of influential figures visiting Moscow in recent weeks.
Virtually all of them, from International Monetary Fund managing director Horst Koehler to U-S Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, are praising the way Russia is handling its economy. Several American companies announced plans to up their investments in Russia by about $70 million.
Skeptics say this flurry of activity has more to do with Russian support for America during the current crisis than any real changes in the business climate here. An editorial in the English-language Moscow Times newspaper points out that Russia remains one of the most corrupt and bureaucratic countries in the world.
According to the non-governmental anti-corruption group Transparency International, Russia ranks 91st, behind Pakistan and just barely above Tanzania, on its most recent rankings. Yet, the newspaper says, the upbeat mood about investing in Russia would probably not be there if Mr. Putin had not thrown his support behind the United States.
It is in this positive atmosphere on the economic front and evidence of a momentous change in Russia's attitude toward America that Mr. Putin prepared to meet Mr. Bush in Shanghai.