Russian President Valdimir Putin is preparing for his fourth meeting with President Bush. The U.S.-led fight against terrorism will figure prominently during their talks in Washington, as will other strategic issues, including American plans to build a national missile defense.
It is Mr. Putin's first visit to the United States, and it comes at a time when relations between the two countries are closer than they have been in years. Just two months ago, few could have envisioned the dramatic warming of ties that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Valdimir Putin was the first foreign leader to get a reassuring word to President Bush in the stressful hours that followed the terror. But it was more than moral support the Russian leader was offering.
Mr. Putin reassured Mr. Bush that Russian troops would stand down as the U.S. military went on high alert. Since then, Russia has remained firmly behind the U.S. fight against terrorism.
It has allowed its airspace to be used for humanitarian purposes, agreed to the stationing of American troops in Central Asian countries, its strategic back yard, and provided arms to the anti-Taleban alliance.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Dmitry Trenin sees September 11 as a moment of truth in Russian foreign policy. "I think that Putin has decided that he was ready to chart a new strategy for Russia's foreign policy," said Mr. Trenin. "And for that strategy, September 11 provided a very important point of departure. He could say, 'now we are in a totally different situation; we have a common enemy, and let us deal with the vestiges of the Cold War, which already now has become ancient history.'"
Among the principle issues to be resolved is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibits American plans to build a missile-defense system. The United States is believed to be ready to make significant cuts in its nuclear arsenal, hoping that will persuade Russia to go along with the U.S. plan to scrap the ABM Treaty.
In a recent American television interview, Mr. Putin said there are still hard negotiations ahead. But he said Russia remains flexible.
Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer believes this apparent progress toward agreement indicates a new willingness on the part of the Kremlin to find areas of compromise. "The thing is, Russian strategy has changed," he said. "There is a U-turn, [a reversal,] and President Vladimir Putin wants to bring Russia to become actually an ally of the West and the United States."
There is little doubt that September 11 was a catalyst for change, but analysts in Moscow also point to the personal rapport that has developed between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin. "When we talk about summit meetings between important leaders, the personal dimension is of very substantial importance," explained Mr. Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment. "We are talking, not only about the relationship between two countries, but we are also talking about the relationship of two men. And, a lot in the relations between states and countries will depend on how the two leaders will size up each other and what they will be able to do together."
While analysts agree that good personal relations can help, they alone are not enough. But now, with growing signs of a common strategic interest between the United States and Russia, there is reason for optimism that long-standing differences can be resolved.