When President Bush leaves the NATO summit in Prague, he will go directly to Russia for a brief meeting with President Vladimir Putin. They will meet just outside Saint Petersburg, Mr. Putin's hometown.
It will be a short visit, just a few hours.
It's a late addition to the president's itinerary, sandwiched between the NATO summit and stops in two of seven former communist countries invited to join the alliance in Prague.
Bush administration officials say President Bush is going to Saint Petersburg to demonstrate the continued expansion of the alliance is good for Russia.
In a speech to a group of European students in Prague, Mr. Bush looked ahead to the meeting with Vladimir Putin. "I will tell my friend, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian people that they, too, will gain from the security and stability of nations to Russia's west," said President Bush. "Russia does not require a buffer zone of protection; it needs peaceful and prosperous neighbors, who are also friends. We need a strong and democratic Russia as our friend and partner to face the next century's new challenges."
There was a time when Moscow was vehemently opposed to NATO expansion. But Russia's response to the action taken in Prague was relatively muted.
Experts in Russian relations were not surprised. Simon Serfaty is the head of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There have been very few complaints, for example, over the past several months about enlargement, and there will be very few complaints about the kind of restructuring of NATO the administration is seeking," he said. "In a sense now, we have achieved now a bit of a disconnect between U.S., European nations, within NATO on the one hand, and U.S. -Russian relations."
The Russian and American leaders have spoken a number of times about their ability to work together. The relationship has been tested in recent months with differences over Iraq, but the days of Cold War-level tensions are gone.
James Steinberg is a foreign policy expert at the Brooking's Institution in Washington. He says Vladmir Putin is more interested in his evolving relationship with the United States, than in the evolution of NATO. "For Putin, NATO-Russia is not terribly important compared to U.S.-Russia. And with the increased focus now post the attacks in Moscow and the Chechnya situation, I think, that's the only thing that is really front and center."
In an interview broadcast Thursday on Russia's NTV television, Mr. Bush made clear he wants to talk to Vladimir Putin about Iraq and the war on terrorism. He also said he would encourage President Putin to seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Chechnya.