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Putin-Bush Talks Aim to Bolster US-Russian Relations - 2003-09-24

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the United States and will meet with President George Bush beginning Friday, the second time the two leaders have met since the Russian-American relationship floundered amid Russia's strong opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. They have said the bilateral relationship is too important to lose to hard feelings over Iraq, and most analysts agree that relations are already back on track.

Just before leaving for the United States, President Putin said he was prepared to boldly represent Russia's views on Iraq at the United Nations in New York and at Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington.

During his stay in the United States, the Russian president will address a U.N. General Assembly meeting that is due to focus on Iraq's post-war reconstruction. The subject will also feature prominently in his talks with President Bush September 26-27.

Russia was one of the most vocal opponents of the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, and President Putin said recently that Russia's position has not changed.

President Putin says the difficulties in restoring stability in Iraq have led him to conclude he was right all along in opposing the war, saying it was a big political mistake. He notes the conflict in Iraq continues, and he adds that there is growing evidence of an increasing number of Islamic extremists infiltrating the country, who were not there before.

President Putin says that if stability is to be achieved, the United Nations must be given a greater role in Iraq's post-war reconstruction process.

The United States is seeking Russia's endorsement of another U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq. This one aims to increase international cooperation in the post-war reconstruction effort. But President Putin, along with the leaders of France and Germany, have said the resolution falls far short of what is needed.

The Deputy Director of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute, Viktor Kremenyuk, says if the two leaders could find some common ground on Iraq it might, in his view, lead the way to cooperation on other issues. If they fail, Mr. Kremenyuk says the U.S.-Russian relationship may be headed for more tough times.

"I think Mr. Bush will be expecting the Russian president to explain how and why he decided to oppose this action [in Iraq]," he said. "Depending on that [discussion], I think they may go ahead developing cooperation on the Iraqi issue into other areas, including maybe Iran and the bilateral relationship, or the discussion may stop at that point."

Mr. Kremenyuk notes that the last time the two leaders met, in St. Petersburg in June, it was widely believed that Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran also posed a significant threat to U.S.-Russian relations.

Some analysts said it would provoke another crisis. But earlier this month, Russia voted in favor of a U.S.-backed resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency that set an October 31 deadline for Iran to fully disclose the details of its nuclear program.

Mr. Kremenyuk says the Iran issue could still be a source of tension at the Bush-Putin summit, especially if the United States continues to urge Russia to halt its nuclear cooperation with Iran, amid fears that Tehran is using Russian expertise and material for a secret nuclear arms program.

"I do not think that Mr. Putin will go ahead and say 'OK, we shall sacrifice our relationship [with Iran] because you want it,' he said "No, that would be a mistake because it is very important for the Russian economy and for the Russian nuclear power industry and it should not be risked unnecessarily.

Officials in Moscow and Tehran say their joint project at the Bushehr nuclear plant is for civilian purposes only.

Mr. Kremenyuk says another global issue for the United States and Russia has been the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Russia was one of the first nations to sign on to the alliance, leading to a flourishing of U.S.-Russian relations two years ago. But the initial luster stemming from that partnership has worn off, as many Russians say their country is not getting any tangible benefits for its cooperation.

Other analysts, like Masha Lippmann, see deeper problems in the Russian-American relationship. She says the widely publicized warm personal relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin hides what she sees as serious disagreements on major issues and a lack of substantive cooperation.

"At the time of the previous summit, there was a lot of talk about whether or not the relationship will be repaired," he said. "Well, it has been repaired to the point where President Bush is clearly going to treat President Putin as a friend. However, like back then, there is no real substance. There is nothing new, no substance and no foundation for real partnership. The fact that President Bush will once again see President Putin's soul does not change this."

Ms. Lippmann refers to the fact that when the two leaders first met in June 2001, President Bush said he looked into the eyes of the Russian president and former KGB chief and saw his soul. Mr. Bush went on to say that Vladimir, as he called him, was his friend and was a man he thought the United States could work with and trust.

Ms. Lippmann says the U.S.-Russian relationship continues to be saved by practical reality. She says each side needs the other to further its goals. She notes that the United States needs Russia's help on terrorism, Iran and Iraq, and Russia needs U.S. help especially in its effort to be more integrated into the global economy.

She cites the energy sector as one area where there is mutually beneficial cooperation.

Russia and the United States held their second high-level energy meeting in St. Petersburg just before President Putin left for the United States. And Russian and U.S. officials say energy cooperation will be one of the principal subjects of their upcoming talks at Camp David.

President Putin's chief of staff says there are limited goals for this week's summit. In an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Sergei Prikhodko did not talk about bold new initiatives, but rather said the goal of the upcoming summit is to talk about fulfilling existing agreements, and to look for ways to expand cooperation.