President Bush heads to Europe Wednesday for a brief visit to Germany followed by the Group of Eight Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Mr. Bush will also hold talks in private with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

White House officials deny relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated in recent years.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says there are sore spots, to be sure, but stresses the two countries are cooperating in a number of areas.

"We are cooperating on some very important issues that are important to Russia and important to the United States: Iran, North Korea, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation," said Stephen Hadley.

Critics of the Putin government are urging Mr. Bush to speak strongly and in public during his stay in Russia about what they see as efforts to backslide on democracy. But Hadley says the president feels he can get better results, and speak more frankly, in private.

"We have talked about the democracy issue publicly but, again, the president's view is in the details, generally, frank but private discussions are a more effective way to deal with these kinds of issues," he said.

The president's national security advisor acknowledges democracy remains very much a work in progress in Russia, and leaves no doubt President Bush will try to push the Russians in the right direction.

"What we would like to see is a greater effort by Russians - they are going to have to decide to make the commitments to do these things - to build the institutions that we all understand to be characteristic of a stable democracy," noted U.S. National Security Advisor.

The president's approach to dealing with Vladimir Putin stands in stark contrast to recent pointed criticism of the Kremlin by Vice President Dick Cheney. But during a briefing with reporters, Hadley indicated that Mr. Bush has always had a good, businesslike, personal relationship with the Russian president and feels he can be most effective operating within that context.

One topic that is sure to come up in their private talks, in addition to matters of press and personal freedom, is Russia's desire for a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States.

The U.S. has such deals with about 20 countries, including China. But Russia's support for Iran's civilian nuclear power industry has galvanized opposition in Washington to an agreement with Moscow.

Hadley noted that last year the Russian government offered to reprocess and dispose of spent nuclear fuel from Iran, removing the risk of it being used by Tehran for military purposes. He made clear such action on the part of Russia opened the door to talks on a civilian nuclear deal with the United States.

"These were helpful and constructive suggestions that put Russia pretty much on the same page with us on Iran and eliminated a major barrier to being able to start these negotiations," he said.

Hadley cautioned, however, that negotiations have just begun, and stressed that any deal that emerges must be approved by the U.S. Congress and the Russian Duma.