President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will hold a summit meeting in Europe later this month.
President Bush will meet Mr. Putin in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, on February 24.
In June 2001, the two men met in Slovenia, not far from Slovakia, for their first face-to-face talks. It was a get-acquainted session and at the end of the meeting, Mr. Bush said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul." For his part, the Russian leader said he viewed the United States as a partner.
Western experts on Russia say the rapport between the two men established at that meeting has solidified over the years and has been a key factor in Russian-American relations.
Marshall Goldman is a long-time Russia expert with Harvard University.
"President Bush still talks warmly about his friend, Vladimir, and I was with the group that met with President Putin in September, and he spoke surprisingly warmly about President Bush,” he said. “I knew that there was a close relationship, but the warmth with which President Putin spoke about President Bush, for me, was very striking. And I think this bonding between the two men will cover over a lot of the difficulties between the two countries. I must confess, for an old Sovietologist, I find that a very strange combination, particularly someone like President Bush, who is very outspoken as an American nationalist, finding such comradeship with somebody who had been a ground agent in the KGB."
Western experts on Russia say since that first meeting in Slovenia, President Putin has taken distinctly anti-democratic steps. He has centralized power in the presidency, weakened the strength of independent political parties and reined in the national media. Experts also point to Moscow's war against Chechen separatists, which has had a devastating effect on the civilian population in the North Caucasus.
All those actions have prompted the human rights organization, "Freedom House," to downgrade Russia, in its latest survey on global freedom
Michael Goldfarb of "Freedom House" says the organization downgraded Russia from a "Partly Free" society to "Not Free."
"This is a notable shift in category because it is Russia,” said Mr. Goldfarb. “It is a vital and important country on the global stage, so it naturally generates response and interest when we make a change like this in our survey. But it's the only country in our survey this year to have registered such a shift, such a downgrade from "Partly Free" to "Not Free." It's the only country."
Many experts say the good relationship between Presidents Putin and Bush is a double-edged sword. They say it has hindered Mr. Bush's ability to "get tough" with Mr. Putin when events dictate. But administration officials disagree, saying they continue to be critical of what they see as an authoritarian trend in Russia.
During a recent trip to Europe, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said Washington will keep on expressing those worries.
"We will continue to talk to the Russians about it, because we really do believe that a more democratic foundation in Russia, as Russia makes a transition from a totalitarian state to a democratic state, that a firmer foundation for that will indeed strengthen and underscore and put a real further substance into a deepened relationship with the democracies in Europe and indeed with the United States," said Ms. Rice.
Administration officials say despite these concerns, the dialogue with Moscow continues because they believe it would be counterproductive to isolate Russia from the world community. They say Moscow and Washington have cooperated on key issues, such as in the fight against international terrorism. They also point to Russia's growing partnership with NATO and Moscow's role in trying to find a peaceful solution in the Middle East.
Analysts say in addition to discussing world affairs during his summit with President Putin, Mr. Bush must bring up Moscow's anti-democratic measures.
Radek Sikorski is a former Polish deputy foreign minister and an expert on Europe with the American Enterprise Institute.
"President Bush needs to tell him, ‘look, I have announced to the world that the aim of my country is to spread democracy around the world and I cannot have that policy with exceptions. I have to support democracy in Ukraine.’ Belarus is on our list of outposts of tyranny and we're watching what you, Russia, do there. And for your own sake and for the sake of your people, you should reverse course from ever more centralized wielding of power in Russia toward the kind of greater openness, which President Putin himself advocated when he was prime minister."
Mr. Sikorski says President Bush cannot backtrack on his stated policy of spreading democracy worldwide.
"Because if you pronounce an ambitious agenda, as the president did, both in his inaugural address and in the state of the union, you'd better follow it up or else you'll be accused of double standards,” he noted. “I think it's an agenda that a great number of American and European people can sign up to, but it means that you sometimes have to pursue it even when it's inconvenient, which is to say towards countries that are allies, such as Egypt, such as Saudi Arabia and yes, Russia too."
Experts say it will be interesting to see how far President Bush is willing to go to urge his friend, Vladimir Putin, to actively pursue democratic reforms in Russia.