Putin Comes to Maine Sunday to See Bush

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 30, 2007; 5:53 PM

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- The personal touch can be a pivotal item in the diplomatic toolbox. President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, time and again, have reached for just the thing to improve one of the world's most crucial partnerships.

A grinning Putin once put Bush behind the wheel of his prized 1956 Volga at his dacha outside Moscow. Bush has brought Putin to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland and made him the first head of state to visit his Texas ranch. At a lavish Red Square military parade in Moscow celebrating World War II's victory, Putin risked alienating other world leaders by grandly terming the American his guest of "special importance" above all the others.

Now, for less than 24 hours starting Sunday afternoon, the U.S. president is hosting his Russian counterpart at the Bush family's summer home on the craggy Maine coast. No other leader has received such a rarified invitation.

The Russian leader gets two presidents in one visit: Bush's dad, former President George H.W. Bush, owns the home and is playing low-key host to the meetings. Putin also will enjoy spectacular views, sparkling New England summertime weather, lobster at nearly every meal, and possibly a striper fishing excursion on the elder Bush's speedboat.

"You only invite your friends into your house," Bush said in November 2001, when Putin came to Crawford, Texas.

But six years of gestures, from the extravagant to the odd, have not masked the problems that increasingly dog U.S.-Russian relations.

"The gulf separating the government of Russia's official discourse and the United States' concept of what the relationship should be has gotten wider than it has been in a long, long time," said Stephen Sestanovich, an ambassador to former Soviet republics under President Clinton who now is at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For decades, relations between Washington and Moscow have been particularly defined by the personal chemistry between the people at the top, said Sarah Mendelson, Russia policy expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Think Reagan and Gorbachev or Clinton and Yeltsin.

The relationship between Bush and Putin started with a bang in June 2001 with the president's now-infamous assessment of Putin.

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," Bush said after that first meeting, in Slovenia. "I was able to get a sense of his soul: a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Even at the time, critics said Bush's unconditional praise _ intended by most accounts as a tactical attempt to connect with Putin and speak of hope as reality _ was nonetheless naive, given a crackdown on civil society groups in Russia and Moscow's brutal war in Chechnya.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, came just three months after the Slovenia meeting. Putin's offer of bold and immediate terrorism-fighting support endeared him to Bush. The next May, at a Moscow summit, the leaders signed a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty and agreed to a broad cooperative agenda.

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