Leaders of the world's major industrialized democracies and Russia, known as the G-8, will meet next month (July 15-17) for the first time on Russian soil.

Russia took over the rotating chairmanship of the G-8 in January and it will host the next summit in mid-July in St. Petersburg.

Marshal Goldman, an expert on Russia at Harvard University, says that event is extremely important for Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

"It's like a coming out party, if you will. They are going to come out on the stage and there is going to be an entrance to the club. They are going to be part of the major G-7 democratic and economically strong countries. And more than that, President Putin will be the chairman," said Goldman. "So this means that for the Russians, who continually crave respect, want to be recognized for their accomplishments, want to be recognized as a superpower - this may not make them a superpower, but at least it makes them a G-8 power and that's very important to them."

But Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says chairing the G-8 summit could turn out to be a double-edged sword for Russian leaders.

"Because the fact that they are chairing the G-8 summit has attracted a lot more attention to some of the questionable aspects of Russia's status as a member of the G-8. The most questionable one, of course, is that G-8 member countries are mature, developed democracies," he said. "And not only is Russia an immature democracy, but I think there are many people, including myself, who would argue that over the course of the last five or six years, Russia has become less democratic."

Experts say since assuming office in 2000, Mr. Putin has centralized power in the presidency, weakened the strength of independent political parties and reined in the national media. And in January of this year, Moscow briefly turned off its natural gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute.

David Marples, an expert on Russia at Canada's University of Alberta (Edmonton), says that move had international ramifications.

"Russia was really accused of using gas as a foreign policy weapon to put pressure on Ukraine," he added. "At the same time, the situation was made worse by the fact that Russian gas supplies go directly to western Europe, through Ukraine and Belarus and therefore there was some threat to the supplies to western Europe from Russia, meaning that Russia was no longer regarded as a reliable partner for the export of gas."

Russia's move briefly disrupted natural gas deliveries to Western Europe and brought international condemnation.

In a strongly worded speech last month in Lithuania, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Russian domestic policies. And he accused Moscow of using gas and oil "as tools of intimidation and blackmail" against neighboring states.

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert at Columbia University (New York), says energy issues will dominate the St. Petersburg summit.

"Putin has made plain that he does see their energy resources as a potential element within the arsenal of foreign policy and national security policy. And I think they need to be careful about not using that in a way that persuades the outside world that they use it primarily, or at critical points, for political purposes. Because that will undermine their credibility as to the reputation they want - which is a reliable supplier."

Legvold also says it will be interesting to see if the United States will continue to criticize Russia at the summit given Vice President Cheney's strong remarks in Vilnius last month.

"Was the Cheney speech simply a kind of opening shot for something that is going to continue? Or was it essentially a way of signing off on that issue, so that the president won't have to make an issue, won't have to raise it at the G-8. It's not clear," he said. "My understanding is they intend to make it an agenda item - but we'll have to see."

Many analysts say the last thing President Putin wants is for the St. Petersburg summit to turn into a forum for criticizing Russia. But those same experts also say Mr. Putin has little leverage to stop that from happening, if western nations decide to adopt that tactic.