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Analysts: Putin-Bush Summit Must Make 'Substantive Progress' - 2003-05-29

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to host President Bush in St. Petersburg this weekend for their first face-to-face talks since the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Some analysts say the two leaders will need to make substantive progress on key issues to claim success.

Just a few days before welcoming President Bush to his hometown for their second summit in six months, President Putin said Russia is ready to expand cooperation with the United States in all fields. Officials in Washington and Moscow say both leaders are now moving to strengthen their strategic relationship after months of strong Russian opposition to the war.

But Masha Gessen, an independent analyst with Russia's Itogi magazine, says for the summit to be declared successful, the two leaders will need to leave the negotiating table with more than goodwill.

"If there is something to say other than just rhetoric of friendship between these two great states then it might have a positive impact," she said. "Again, there was initially a lot of skepticism about the kind of relationship that [President] Putin started to pursue with Mr. Bush after September 11th. He certainly went out on a limb [took a risk] to do this and I think people's patience is wearing thin and there are a lot of politicians who are ready to capitalize on this patience wearing thin."

Ms. Gessen was referring to the fact that it is an election year in Russia, with parliamentary elections scheduled for December. She says the voting will make it difficult for President Putin to pursue the kind of cooperation with the United States that has existed for the past two years. President Putin became one of the first world leaders to support the U.S.-led global war against terrorism. The cooperation also led to the negotiation of a landmark U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, which the Russian parliament ratified last week.

But the Deputy Director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitri Trenin, says such dramatic accomplishments are not necessary this time. He says just the Putin-Bush meeting itself will be an important step toward restoring the close relationship that existed before the Iraq issue interfered.

"This is a PR [public relations] meeting, if you like," he said. "It is sending the message that their relationship has been patched up, that Bush and Putin, two great leaders who have been and remain friends, who may disagree occasionally but, as Putin is putting it, there is so much more that unites them than divides them."

Mr. Trenin says Russia took a step toward mending relations with the United States, when it chose to support the U.S.-backed United Nations resolution lifting 13 years of sanctions on Iraq.

"I think the passing of the resolution is a sign that Russia along with others in the 'coalition of the unwilling' decided to get out of the deadlock in which their policies had led them," he said. "It's an encouraging sign people (are) recognizing realities and realize it's not wise to gang up against the United States. However, from that (realization) to real cooperation on other issues is still a pretty long road. And frankly, I'm not very optimistic."

Those "other issues" include North Korea's nuclear program and Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran.

But analysts wonder how much substance can actually be covered Sunday in a meeting scheduled for just about one hour, on the sidelines of major celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.

In addition, Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of the Moscow-based think tank known as the Strategic Studies Center, says there is another issue holding back Russian-U.S. relations.

"Basically, the dividing factor is not this or that particular issue, but a deep suspicion [on the part] of a large majority of the Russian political class about American intentions," he said. "The idea that America is confronting Russia, is encircling Russia, is threatening Russia, is unfortunately still very popular among the Russian political elite. And this elite from the very beginning, from since September 11, has been resisting strongly to the Putin course on strategic rapprochement between the USA and Russia."

Still, Mr. Piontkovsky says the majority of the Russian people agree with President Putin that a strategic partnership with the United States is a good thing for Russia. He says whether Sunday's summit produces grand results or not, it will serve to emphasize that point.