The long-anticipated May 23-26 Russian-U.S. 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 package of joint statements was signed as well, including one that sets out in general terms the parameters of a new Russian-U.S. strategic relationship. Aside from the arms cut deal, however, it remains unclear whether the three days of talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg will serve ultimately to boost cooperation between Russia and the United States in ways that are significant, sustainable and, to match the rhetoric used at the summit, historic.
What the summit did produce was fresh evidence (if earlier reports indicating that Bush refers affectionately to Putin as "Pootie-Poot" were not indication enough) of the close personal relationship that has developed between the two leaders. That is ironic, given Putin’s background as a career KGB officer and the frequent charges leveled by Bush’s political supporters that Russian-U.S. relations were overly personalized under former Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. Indeed, some Western and Russian observers went so far as to suggest not only that the friendship between Putin and Bush was the summit’s most significant feature, but that their personal relationship might serve ultimately as the basis for warmer relations between Russia and the United States more generally.
In terms of substance, however, the summit appeared to be as much about the constraints that continue to limit Russian-U.S. ties. Even the centerpiece arms cut agreement, for example, is a bare-bones document that contains easy opt-out provisions and that fails to address key counting and verification issues. Some of these shortcomings can and perhaps will be addressed in future negotiations. But the treaty’s immediate significance appears to fall far short of the claims made during the summit that it marks an historic break with the Cold War past. Equally uncertain is whether the pact will contribute to stabilizing Russian-U.S. strategic relations or, more broadly, to promoting international nonproliferation efforts.
Continuing tension between Russia and the United States on a host of other issues was to some extent also evident during the May 23-26 summit. The issue that got the most attention and that provided the one obvious note of discord during the summit was the ongoing Russian-U.S. standoff over Moscow’s cooperation with Iran in the area of nuclear power and ballistic missile development. Other differences were apparently papered over. For example, there was scant public mention during the summit of the friendly relations maintained by Moscow with Iraq and North Korea, the two countries–along with Iran–identified by Washington as an "axis of evil" threatening U.S. and international security. That silence was striking given Moscow’s rejection of U.S. military threats against Iraq and its reported negotiation of a possible nuclear power deal with North Korea. It was probably no coincidence that Moscow played host to visits by delegations from both North Korea and Iraq in the days immediately preceding the U.S. president’s arrival in the Russian capital. Bush, meanwhile, chose to softpedal past U.S. criticism of Russian abuses in Chechnya and of the Kremlin’s spotty human rights record more generally (see below).
But if Bush’s relative silence on Chechnya and other human rights issues was welcomed in Moscow, the summit failed nonetheless to produce definitive movement on the trio of economic and trade issues of greatest importance to the Kremlin. Those are repeal of U.S. trade restrictions enacted under the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment; recognition by the United States of Russia as a market economy; and explicit action by Washington in support of Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. Given the hard line that Washington has taken toward Moscow on strategic security issues, the failure to make significant progress on these trade issues could serve to strengthen perceptions in Russia that Putin’s enthusiastic embrace of the West and the U.S. antiterror war has paid few real dividends, and that Washington remains determined to pursue maximalist foreign policies that exploit Russia’s current weaknesses.