Summer meeting a chance to relax

Published 6:18 pm Friday, June 29, 2007

President Bush’s summertime meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Bush family’s oceanfront estate is about lobsters, legacies and a break from increasing tensions.

Relations between Washington and Moscow are strong, but on the skids, and both Bush and Putin want to massage those relations before leaving office.

Putin, bolstered by Russia’s economic muscle and popularity at home, has adopted an assertive posture on the world stage. He has bluntly opposed a U.S. missile defense plan in Europe. Putin bristles when Bush scolds the Kremlin for rolling back democratic reforms and fends off what he sees as U.S. meddling in the affairs of ex-Soviet nations.

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Bush, dogged by low poll ratings and rising anti-American sentiment around the world, is preoccupied with the war in Iraq, which Putin opposed. With waning U.S. leverage with Russia, Bush is hoping to tone down the rhetoric and find common ground on issues while dining on lobster, or reeling in a few fish.

It will have to be fast.

Putin arrives Sunday afternoon and will be gone less than 24 hours later.

During the Bush-Putin meeting, no major initiatives will be signed, but both are hoping they’ll find reason to agree — or at least politely disagree— on issues including missile defense, the future of Kosovo, a civilian nuclear reactor cooperation initiative and how to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“I really don’t think that either of them want, as part of their legacy, a trashed U.S.-Russian relationship,” said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Kuchins said he can’t find any historical precedent for this style of summit.

“Is this the first time that a U.S. leader has hosted a foreign leader at dad’s house?” Kuchins asked. “Do Vlad and George need some kind of adult supervision?”

The White House says former President Bush won’t be involved in the formal talks, but will be on hand to chat with Putin and the president and go boating in the choppy waters near the Bush compound overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

It will be the two leaders’ last real opportunity to reverse the decline in U.S.-Russia relations, aside from chats they might have on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in September in Australia. In May 9 speech in Red Square, Putin seemed to compare Bush’s foreign policy to that of the Third Reich, while in February he accused the U.S. of “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.”

“When you look at the rhetoric coming out of Moscow and coming specifically from President Putin — this sort of standing up to the United States and the West plays very well with the Russian public,” said Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs. “We should expect this to continue.”

There also has been tension over statements the Bush administration has made that has been critical of the path toward democracy in Putin’s Russia.

A senior Putin aide on Friday dismissed allegations that Russia is backtracking on democracy, another issue expected to be in the spotlight of the Putin-Bush meeting.

In comments reported by Russian news agencies, Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said that “we are concerned about the fact that groundless criticism of Russia for its alleged rollback of democratic principles and standards has intensified recently.”

The Interfax news agency quoted him as saying, “We regard such assessments as biased and unfair and we are ready for detailed dialogue on the matter.”

Putin played host in Russia on Thursday to Hugo Chavez, the leftist Venezuelan leader who has called Bush a devil, a donkey and a drunkard. Amid media speculation that Chavez would sign a major weapons deal while in Russia, Putin said bilateral relations with the South American nation were developing.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Russia cooperated with the United States in defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It appeared that the United States and Russia were on the same wavelength.

But in December 2001, Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty President Nixon signed in 1972 to limit strategic missile defense systems. The U.S. withdrew so it could continue development of a missile defense system.

The Russians have joined with the United States in moving steadily to put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program. It’s Putin’s anger over U.S. missile defense that is testing U.S.-Russia relations today.

The Russian president surprised Bush at a recent meeting in Germany by proposing the shared use of a Russia-rented early warning radar in Azerbaijan as a substitute for radar and interceptors the United States wants to place in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The White House has been careful not to dismiss Putin’s suggestion, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the United States will not embrace the facility in Azerbaijan as a substitute. It’s unclear if Putin will be willing to budge, but advisers don’t expect the matter to be resolved in Kennebunkport anyway.

“There is flexibility in our approach, but not endless flexibility,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

The United States says the missile defense system is meant to shield the United States and its European allies against missile threats from the Middle East. Moscow, however, sees no threat from Iran and that missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic will have no other target except Russian military bases in the European part of the nation.

Bush advisers say the president will try to convince Putin that the system is not aimed at Russia and persuade Russia that there is a potential threat from Iran. That might be a tough sell.

Russia on Thursday announced the first successful test flight of a new sea-based ballistic missile. It was the country’s second major test of new rocket technology in a month and comes amid an aggressive Russian effort to upgrade its missile forces after years of underfunding and a lack of testing.