Trying to Revive Bond With a Bolder Putin

President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany in June. They will meet today in Maine; Putin is the first foreign leader invited there by Bush.
President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany in June. They will meet today in Maine; Putin is the first foreign leader invited there by Bush. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

The first time Vladimir Putin met President Bush's dog at the White House, the Russian president seemed distinctly unimpressed. When Putin later played host at his dacha outside Moscow, he presented his Labrador to Bush.

"Bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner," Putin boasted, "than Barney."

In many ways, Russia is a bigger, tougher, stronger nation than it was when Putin took office -- and the relationship with the United States is certainly meaner. Putin, the first world leader to call Bush and offer help after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has evolved from a potential partner to one of the most vexing players on the world stage for the U.S. president.

As Putin arrives this afternoon in Kennebunkport, Maine, for an overnight stay at the Bush family compound, the president hopes to reestablish some of the rapport the two shared six years ago when they first met. But Putin these days is determined to play a more assertive role, one powered by Russia's oil-driven economic resurrection and fueled by resentment of U.S. superiority and unwillingness to accept second-tier status.

Neither side expects any breakthroughs on the issues most dividing them, such as planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe or independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo. More important may be determining whether the two leaders can get relations back on a more even keel, at least until their successors are chosen next year.

"Kennebunkport represents the last real opportunity for the two presidents to reverse the downward slide that's characterized U.S.-Russian relations the last several years," said Steven Pifer, a former Bush State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But having said that, expectations should be modest."

Some Russia scholars said the meeting may even be counterproductive, seemingly rewarding Putin with a rare invitation to Kennebunkport, even though he recently compared Bush policies to those of the Third Reich and threatened to point missiles at Europe. "It sends all the wrong signals," said Michael McFaul of Stanford University. "It says, 'I can call you Hitler, and you will invite me to your summer home.' It says Russia is strong and the Americans are weak."

Still, the two sides have moved in recent days to ease tensions in advance of the meeting. On Thursday, according to a U.S. official, the Kremlin notified Washington that it would allow in inspectors under the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, despite Putin's recent statement that he was suspending the pact in protest of the U.S. missile defense plan. That could ease fears of a new Cold War-style arms race.

And on Friday, the official said, U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns and a Russian counterpart initialed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Bush aides played down the prospect that the two presidents would sign the agreement in Kennebunkport, but it appears to be ready to be announced tomorrow or soon after.

Still, Russia has continued to crack down on dissent at home, despite criticism by Washington, and used a questionable criminal investigation to effectively shut down a U.S.-funded organization that trains Russian journalists.

Moreover, each side has held meetings in recent days intended to send pointed messages to the other: Bush met at the White House with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia, a former Soviet republic that has come under pressure from Moscow lately, and Putin hosted at the Kremlin President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, perhaps Bush's most virulent critic in Latin America.

How the U.S.-Russian relationship deteriorated to its lowest point since the Cold War has consumed specialists in both capitals. During their first meeting, in Slovenia in June 2001, Bush famously said he looked into Putin's eyes and got a sense of his soul. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three months later seemed to ratify that, as Putin overruled hard-liners and permitted U.S. troops to set up bases in Central Asia, a traditional Russian sphere.

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