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Bush and Putin Meet at Kennebunkport


U.S. President George Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet in a few days [July 1 and 2] at the Bush family house in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The Kennebunkport meeting comes at a time when most analysts agree relations between Washington and Moscow are not good.

Experts say this past year has been characterized by strong rhetoric on both sides coupled with major disagreements on key issues.

As an example of the harsh rhetoric, analysts point to a February speech given by President Putin at a major conference in Munich, Germany -- a speech in which the Russian leader strongly criticized U.S. foreign policy.

For his part, during a June address in Prague [Czech Republic], President Bush accused Russia of derailing democratic reforms.

Despite the strong words exchanged between Washington and Moscow, experts -- including Dale Herspring from Kansas State University -- say presidents Bush and Putin continue to have a good personal relationship.

"Because both of them are very similar in the sense that what they value is honesty and straightforwardness -- in that sense, they are sort of both very similar. I don't think that Putin can put up with somebody who plays games with him anymore than Bush can," says Herspring.

Major Issues

As the two leaders prepare for their summit meeting, analysts say a major disagreement between the two sides is Washington's plan to put an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe -- ten missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials say that kind of defense is needed against potential threats from countries such as Iran and is not targeted against Russia.

Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Moscow is against such a plan because "it combines Russia's two worst security nightmares: missile defense and the expansion eastward by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization", or NATO.

"So the fact that these deployments are going into countries that were former members of the Warsaw Pact, I think, is especially sensitive to the Russians. The Russians know that these system deployments don't threaten the Russian strategic deterrent in any way, shape or form. The Russians have thousands of nuclear missiles and the ten interceptors in Poland, obviously, can't address that threat. So that's not the immediate concern,” says Kuchins. “ I think there is always a longer term concern on the Russian part that while these deployments may not threaten us, what is the future architecture of the system going to look like 15, 20, 25 years down the road?"

For his part Jason Lyall, a Russia expert at Princeton University, says the Russian military feels it is encircled by hostile forces. "Boy, if you're sitting in the Kremlin and you're looking at the map, you've got NATO forces all the way through the Baltic states, all the way around through Eastern Europe, all the way into Georgia now, and then sitting through Afghanistan and then into Central Asia,” says Lyall. “And so the Soviet military -- or the Russian military -- is probably the most Soviet institution left and it's looking at that and saying, 'We are more and more surrounded now than at any time during the Cold War and now you want to put missiles on our borders too?'"

President Putin recently offered Washington use of a radar facility in Azerbaijan in exchange for abandoning the Czech and Polish initiatives. U.S. officials have reacted coolly to the idea but have agreed to discuss the proposal.

Tensions over Kosovo

Another issue where the two sides are far apart is Kosovo -- a province of Serbia, mostly populated by ethnic-Albanians. Since 1999, Kosovo has been under the administration of the United Nations and NATO. But a recent plan by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari calls for Kosovo's independence under the guidance of NATO and the European Union -- a plan supported by the United States.

Russia has strongly opposed Kosovo's independence and has threatened to use its veto if the proposal comes up for a U.N. Security Council vote.

Jason Lyall from Princeton University says Russia's opposition to independence goes beyond the issue of Serb minority rights in Kosovo.

"What the Russians are very, very worried about is the legal precedent this sets in world politics. If you have a Kosovo that becomes independent, you have now set a legal precedent for foreign intervention in states to justify and legalize secessionist movements,” says Lyall. “And Russia looks at Kosovo through Chechen eyes. And it very much sees the experience of Chechnya and other republics in its south. And so this is a legal precedent we do not want to touch. And so I do not know how the West finesses this with Russia. I think it's not really the Serb issue at all. It's really the legal precedent that it sets and this is going to be a major sticking point.”

Mending Fences

Lyall and others do not believe any major breakthroughs will be achieved at the upcoming Kennebunkport summit. They say presidents Bush and Putin will draw on their personal relationship and discuss key issues in an informal setting.

Marshal Goldman, a Russia expert at Harvard University, has spent time at the Bush family home in Kennebunkport.

"There's no large auditorium. There's no place for the press to be briefed. There's a large living room and there is a kitchen and then there are the bedrooms that go off that. And this living room is not the largest I've ever seen. And it overlooks the water -- the ocean. It's certainly 'come into my home and let's have a friendly chat.' It's a very warm place, it's not cold, it's not formal. It lends itself to informality and it just has to be a warm and friendly place. It's not a place where confrontation is easily achieved," says Goldman.

Goldman and others say such a setting where the two presidents are alone with a minimum number of advisers could help rejuvenate relations between Washington and Moscow.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.