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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)

But relations began to shift in 2003 with the launching of the Iraq war, which Putin opposed, and worsened months later with the Russian government's politically charged arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival, just weeks after he had been in Washington to meet with U.S. officials and opinion leaders. Pifer recalled a memo sent that fall to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warning of problems with Russia. Powell later published a biting critique in a Russian newspaper.

Subsequent events left Bush increasingly disturbed: Putin's cancellation of gubernatorial elections after the Beslan school siege; his attempts to dominate neighboring Ukraine by influencing its elections and cutting off its natural gas; and, most recently, the polonium poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London.

"At the beginning . . . it looked like we were on track," said John R. Bolton, who as undersecretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations dealt often with Russian officials. "Clearly, something went wrong between 2003 and 2005."

Many in Washington believe Bush misread Putin, and was captivated at their first meeting by the Russian leader's attachment to a cross his mother gave him. Bush saw a democrat instead of a former KGB colonel intent on reconsolidating power in the Kremlin. "There were a lot of signs that President Putin was not the reformer that President Bush was betting on," said Sarah Mendelson, a Russia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Others say Bush missed an opportunity to cement the early friendship by reciprocating after Putin accepted U.S. forces in Central Asia, NATO expansion into the Baltic states and U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In the Russian view, Washington never responded, not even to lift trade restrictions, even though they no longer apply to China and other Communist nations.

"Russia expected something in return," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. And so did Putin. "Now after several years of, as he sees it, being ignored by the West, he decided, 'Okay, I will be in a different style, and then you will hear me.' I think he feels a very deep disappointment toward the West."

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow analyst once close to Putin's circle, said the Russian president genuinely wanted to be seen as a Westernizing leader and felt snubbed by Europe and the United States. "He wants to be respected and appreciated, not described as some KGB colonel," Belkovsky said. "Putin feels offended. Putin is frustrated because he is not appreciated."

He also is in a position to challenge the United States in a way he was not when he came to office, presiding over a country that has wiped out its foreign debt, expanded its economy more than fivefold and rectified the internal collapse of the 1990s, after the end of the Soviet Union.

"Things are getting better in Russia," Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told journalists at The Washington Post last month. "We are not so preoccupied with domestic problems. Things are back on track, and they are developing positively. . . . It's like a human body that has revived. And now Russia and President Putin can be more preoccupied with defending interests on the international stage."

He made that clear at an international security conference in Munich in February with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in the audience. Putin said the United States had "overstepped its national borders in every way," ignoring the views of other powers, risking a new arms race and making the world a more dangerous place. Although his words were generally consistent with his past grievances, U.S. officials were stunned by their harshness.

"That really slapped the administration upside the head and served as a wake-up call," said Clifford Kupchan, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. "The administration was still thinking of Russia as a junior disciple, not as a rising, increasingly assertive regional power."

Putin soon was threatening to re-target missiles at Europe because of the new missile defense system, but he pivoted during a meeting in Germany last month to propose that the United States abandon plans for an antimissile radar in the Czech Republic and instead use a Russian one in Azerbaijan. Although the Russian radar is considered inadequate for targeting incoming missiles, the idea put Bush on the defensive and made Putin look as if he were compromising.

This weekend's visit at Walker's Point, the Bush compound perched on the ocean, will give the president a chance to hit the reset button to some extent. It is the first time the president has brought a foreign leader to his parents' home. With his father, former president George H.W. Bush, as host, the two leaders will have more-relaxed time together and will possibly go fishing. They will have a private dinner tonight and meet with reporters tomorrow. But both sides cautioned against expecting breakthroughs.

"Don't forget that leaders can be friends; they can remain friends even if they have disagreements," said Peskov, the Putin spokesman. "But there is also a limit beyond which their friendship cannot go. There is a limit of national interests. Each of them has to defend his national interests."

Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow contributed to this report.


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