Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 103

This past weekend’s long anticipated summit meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin proved in many respects to be longer on symbolism than substance. As expected, the two men did sign a strategic arms cut agreement that will reduce their countries’ respective operationally deployed nuclear arsenals from approximately 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next ten years. A number of joint statements were signed as well, including one that sets out in general terms the parameters of a new Russian-U.S. strategic relationship. But in concrete terms, the formal May 24 summit meeting in Moscow and the two days of talks and informal meetings in St. Petersburg that followed produced little else of real and immediate significance.

What the summit did apparently yield was fresh evidence of the close personal relationship that has developed between Bush and Putin. That is ironic, given Putin’s career KGB background and the criticism that Bush’s political supporters had earlier directed at the bonhomie that linked former Russian and U.S. leaders Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. Some Russian and Western sources, meanwhile, suggested in the wake of the weekend’s events that the growing Bush-Putin friendship is symbolic of an historic warming in Russian-U.S. ties more generally, and that the weekend’s summit was significant for that reason.

But the summit appeared in fact to be as much about the constraints that continue to limit Russian-U.S. relations. Even the centerpiece arms cut agreement, for example, is a bare-bones document that in some respects falls short of the unratified START II Treaty that Bush’s father signed in 1992. Subsequent negotiations and interaction between the militaries of the two countries–some of which are envisioned in the Russian-U.S. declaration on strategic ties–will likely be necessary to determine whether the pact is in fact a document of historical significance, one that marks a break with the Cold War, and whether it will exercise a broader stabilizing influence on Russian-U.S. strategic relations.

Continuing tensions between Russia and the United States on a host of other security issues were likewise evident either explicitly or implicitly during the weekend’s talks. The most explicit was the Russian-U.S. standoff over Moscow’s ongoing cooperation with Iran in the area of nuclear power and ballistic missile development. Just before arriving in Moscow, Bush raised anew U.S. objections to Russia’s US$800 million nuclear power plant construction project at Bushehr in southern Iran.

Indeed, tensions over Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation appeared to provide the one significant note of discord in the weekend’s proceedings, and led to a testy exchange between Bush and Putin on May 24. The Russian leader rejected U.S. criticism in this area, and went on to defend Russian policy by citing (as Russian officials have done frequently in the past) Washington’s own participation in a project to build a nuclear facility in North Korea (under a three-nation 1994 accord aimed at terminating North Korea’s own nuclear program). Putin also attempted to turn U.S. criticism of Russian leaks of ballistic missile technology back on Washington by accusing the United States of aiding missile development programs in Taiwan and other unspecified countries.

Meanwhile, the failure of Bush and Putin to address publicly their differences over policy toward Iraq and North Korea hinted at a decision to paper over implicit tensions in order to ensure the summit’s success. The dearth of comment about Iraq and North Korea was especially notable given the fact that both countries have been consigned–along with Iran–to the Bush administration’s “axis of evil,” and that Moscow has spoken out strongly against any U.S. move to unseat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by military means. The Kremlin, moreover, demonstrated its intention to maintain friendly ties with both Pyongyang and Baghdad by hosting diplomatic delegations from those countries in the days that immediately preceded Bush’s arrival in the Russian capital (see the Monitor, May 21, 23).

If, in his public remarks at least, Bush chose to highlight the problems over Iran and to ignore those over North Korea and Iraq, he took yet another approach regarding U.S. concerns over Russia’s war in Chechnya and other human rights issues. In the leadup to Bush’s arrival in Moscow, some human rights groups had urged him to pressure Putin in particular over continuing abuses by the Russian military in the Caucasus, but also over the Kremlin’s attacks on media and other freedoms in Russia. The U.S. leader took a soft line, however, chiding Russian authorities on several occasions but stopping short of criticism that might embarrass the Kremlin. Bush did visit a synagogue in St. Petersburg, the first American president to do so, but the encounter seemed intended largely to celebrate a resurgence of Jewish religious life that has occurred in Russia in recent years. Bush reportedly announced his satisfaction that officially sanctioned anti-Semitism is a thing of the past in Russia, and spoke more generally in defense of religious freedom. But he appears not to have addressed specifically other charges of religious intolerance in Russia, including recent measures the authorities have aimed at the Catholic Church.

But if Putin was gratified by Washington’s decision to softpedal criticism of Russia’s human rights record, he seems to have had less to be thankful about in the areas of trade and economic policy. Many commentators had suggested in the run up to the summit that Putin–disappointed by the hard line that the United States had taken earlier with respect to security and arms control issues–had hoped to get his payback for support of the U.S. antiterror campaign in precisely these areas. But the summit appeared to produce little definitive movement in any of the three areas most important to Moscow: repeal of trade restrictions under the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, recognition by the United States of Russia as a market economy, and explicit moves by Washington in support of Russia’s efforts to win membership in the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the summit produced little in the way of official comment on the trade dispute that has been identified recently as the most serious irritant in bilateral relations: Russian anger over U.S. steel tariffs and a subsequent clash over a retaliatory ban by Moscow on U.S. poultry exports (Reuters, Strana.ru, May 24; New York Times, May 25, 27; Washington Post, May 25-27; AP, May 26; Moscow Times, May 27).

But whatever their differences in other areas, Bush and Putin will get a chance to celebrate improved Russian-U.S. ties once again today when they and European leaders gather in Italy for a NATO-Russian summit. The meeting is intended to formalize a recently concluded agreement under which Russian interaction with the Western alliance is to be upgraded through the creation of a new cooperation council. Russia will sit as an equal with NATO member countries on the new council, and will join in deliberations and policymaking on such issues as peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism and halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.