Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Moscow Tuesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin and other officials. The trip will be Condoleezza Rice's first to Moscow since becoming secretary of state January 26. Ms. Rice will meet Russian government officials to prepare for President George Bush's visit to Moscow during the May 9 observances commemorating the end of World War II in Europe.
Addressing a conference of U.S. newspaper editors over the weekend, Ms. Rice said her message to Russian leaders will be "that a democratic, vibrant and prosperous Russia is in everyone's interest."
Russia analysts have expressed concern about what they see as anti-democratic steps taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last few years.
Michael McFaul, Russia expert with the Hoover Institution, says Mr. Putin has intimidated the national media and consolidated power in the office of the presidency.
"He then moved against and weakened civil society and political parties through different new laws, so now they are much weaker today as an independent source of power than they were before," he said. "Then the parliament, it once was a voice of opposition and check on presidential power, a very weak one, but some kind of check - that is no more today. And then finally, most recently, he eliminated direct elections of governors, which over time, will make them much more beholden to the Kremlin."
All these actions prompted the human rights organization Freedom House to downgrade Russia in its latest survey on global freedom from a "partly free" society to "not free."
Some experts say President Bush has been lax in his criticism of President Putin, because of the good relationship he has with the Russian leader. But following their February 24 summit meeting in Bratislava, Mr. Bush told reporters he brought up the importance of democratic ideals.
"I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles," he said. "I did so in a constructive and friendly way. I reaffirmed my belief that it is democracy and freedom that bring true security and prosperity in every land. We may not always agree with each other, and we haven't over the last four years, that is certain, but we found [a] lot of agreement, a lot of common ground and the world is better for it."
Experts say one area of agreement is to continue the fight against international terrorism. During the February summit, the two sides decided to expand cooperation to make sure that nuclear weapons are secure and accounted for.
Matthew Bunn, nuclear weapons expert at Harvard University, says safeguarding Russian nuclear facilities is critical.
"If a well-financed and well-organized terrorist group managed to get hold of the essential ingredients for a nuclear bomb, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, it is quite plausible that they would be able to make at least a crude nuclear bomb and Osama bin Laden has been trying to do so for over a decade," he said. "So we are in a race, at this point, to get these stockpiles, not only in Russia, but all over the world, locked down and accounted for before terrorists and criminals can get to them."
Looking ahead, experts do not see any major shift in U.S.-Russian relations.
"It's more stay the course and that, by the way, is always the case in second terms of administrations: they rarely change the course of their diplomacy in the second term," Michael McFaul said. "So it's not going to change because of bad things happening in Russia, but also no great new initiatives, if you will, that might lead to some kind of greater cooperation in U.S.-Russian relations."
Experts say President Bush is faced with difficult choices in his relations with Mr. Putin. On the one hand, he must continue to criticize anti-democratic moves in Russia. But at the same time, that criticism must be such that it doesn't alienate President Putin and force him down a confrontational path with Washington.