Bush Reaches to Putin as Relations Continue to Slide

By Peter Baker and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 31, 2007

President Bush yesterday launched a high-stakes effort to repair the dramatically deteriorating U.S. relationship with Russia by inviting President Vladimir Putin to visit the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, after weeks of rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War.

The White House has grown increasingly alarmed lately with the harsh tone coming out of Moscow and its hardening positions on issues that include Iran's nuclear program, Kosovo statehood and missile defense. Administration officials said privately that the situation has reached a crisis stage and needs to be reversed before it gets worse.

Although the president's aides do not expect to resolve the stickiest issues dividing the two sides during the visit to the Bush family retreat on the rocky Maine coast July 1-2, they hope the relaxed setting will restore U.S.-Russian relations to a more constructive footing. In more than six years as president, Bush has never asked any foreign leader to join him at his parents' seaside home until now, and aides hope Putin will be impressed with the show of intimacy.

"The Russians still remain a very important partner, despite the tensions that may arise over various issues," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters after announcing the meeting yesterday. "We're going to make all our concerns known, but on the other hand, we're going to continue working to work ahead."

But Russia specialists expressed doubt that Bush can make much headway with Putin, particularly now that both are heading into the twilight of their tenures. Putin has said that he will step down next spring in accordance with constitutional term limits, just months before Bush's successor is chosen in a U.S. election. Domestic politics in both countries have ratcheted up the tension lately.

"This is a relationship that's been taking one body blow after another," said Stephen Sestanovich, who was ambassador to former Soviet republics under President Bill Clinton. "It's very hard to put something like that back together when both leaders are deep into lame-duck status."

The two sides are at loggerheads over several contentious issues. Bush wants Russia to do more to press Iran to give up its nuclear program, while Moscow objects to U.S.-backed independence for Kosovo, the U.N.-administered southern province of Serbia. Most combustible has been the U.S. plan to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, a move Russia sees as an unjustified provocation in its backyard.

The Bush administration may have misjudged how much the missile defense plan would rile the Kremlin. U.S. officials have been shocked by the tenor of the Russian response. Putin recently appeared to compare U.S. policy to that of the Third Reich and suspended compliance with a major arms-control treaty to protest the missile defense. Just this week, he accused the United States of turning Europe into a "powder keg," and his government announced it has tested a new multiple-warhead missile that could penetrate any U.S. anti-missile shield.

Anti-American rhetoric has become a staple of Kremlin-controlled television and many Russian political speeches, a reflection according to analysts of both genuine grievances and a desire to assert Russia's revival as a world power under Putin. The Kremlin views Western lecturing on democracy in Russia as an attempt to derail Putin's carefully orchestrated succession plans.

Putin said last week that criticism of human rights is an attempt to make Russia "more pliable" on other issues. "The death penalty in some Western countries -- let's not point fingers, secret prisons and torture exist in Europe, problems with the media in some countries, immigration laws which in some European countries are not in line with the general principles of international law or democratic order -- these things, too, fall under common values," Putin said after meeting with Portugal's prime minister Tuesday.

He went on to say: "Let's not talk about having immaculate, white fluffy partners on one side, and on the other a monster who has just come out of a forest with claws and corns growing instead of legs."

Tension with Europe has grown as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, just had a frosty meeting with Putin in Russia during which she publicly criticized the Kremlin's crackdown on political opponents. Britain recently sought the extradition of a Russian accused in the polonium poisoning of a former KGB officer in London, only to be rebuffed. And a sustained assault on the computer systems of Estonia, a NATO member, has been blamed on Russia.

Such issues may dominate next week's summit of the Group of Eight major industrial nations to be hosted by Merkel in Germany. Bush and Putin will meet on the sidelines of the summit June 7, but not long enough, according to aides, to make significant progress. Bush then plans to visit the two European countries that have agreed to host portions of the U.S. missile defense systems -- Poland and the Czech Republic -- a high-profile show of support against Russian pressure.

Bush also plans to host Estonia's president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, at the White House on June 25 -- just a week before Putin's visit to Kennebunkport -- another meeting fraught with symbolism to the Russians, who are angry with Estonia for moving a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed during World War II.

Bush aides said the Putin visit is coming about because the Russian leader already had plans to travel to Guatemala. Some hope he and Bush will be able to sign a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, but as one official put it, "I don't think we're holding our breath." The official said the meeting will deal frankly with the recent disputes. "It isn't going to be a sweep-things-under-the-rug kind of meeting," he said.

Michael A. McFaul, a scholar at Stanford University, said U.S.-Russian relations have reached the lowest point in 20 years. Administration officials "are apoplectic" and "it feels to them like a crisis," McFaul said. A year ago, administration officials disagreed about how to interpret Russia; today, the debate is over. But McFaul added: "Nobody has a good idea of what is to be done."

Toby T. Gati, a former State Department official who advises U.S. firms doing business in Russia, said Bush and Putin will each go to Kennebunkport counting on his ability to change the other's mind, and neither will succeed. "All the warm words and backslapping aren't going to change the fact that there's no 'there' there," she said. "There's no substantive relationship."

Finn reported from Moscow.

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