Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 132

The Bush administration’s rehabilitation of cooperative relations with Russia has continued in recent days, as U.S. President George W. Bush and top administration officials have followed up the friendly June 16 Russian-U.S. summit with fresh indications of their eagerness to tighten ties with Moscow. The Kremlin has to some extent reciprocated these sentiments, though the signals coming out of Moscow have not always been consistent. President Vladimir Putin has himself exhibited some of this ambivalence, alternating friendly appeals to his U.S. counterpart with a series of actions that might not be quite so well appreciated in Washington. Indeed, Putin appeared to take the diplomatic offensive on the issue that is now central to the health of Russian-U.S. relations–Bush administration missile defense plans–in talks with French President Jacques Chirac and then in an announcement that Moscow was seeking to launch multilateral talks on missile defense and strategic international issues. Putin’s actions came, moreover, amid mixed signals from Russian officials regarding Moscow’s willingness to agree to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The stepped-up activity on both sides was clearly part of the diplomatic maneuvering that is taking place in the runup both to direct Russian-U.S. talks on these strategic issues, and to a meeting between Putin and Bush that is to take place during the July 20-22 summit of the Group of Seven countries and Russia in Genoa.

The cheery atmospherics that pervaded the June 16 summit were again in evidence over the past week in a pair of exchanges between the two leaders. The first came in the text of a goodwill message Putin sent to Bush marking the U.S. July 4 holiday. According to a Kremlin statement, Putin’s message included a call for the two countries to engage in “intensive dialogue” aimed at strengthening strategic stability. Putin also reportedly spoke of Russia and the United States having used the June 16 summit to lay “the positive bases for a new stage in bilateral cooperation.”

A more significant exchange came on July 6 when Bush, vacationing with family members for a few days in Maine, fielded a ten-minute phone call from the Russian leader. According to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, the two presidents “discussed a wide variety of issues and talked about how they could work together on strategic stability, improved economic relations and a variety of regional issues.” Bush himself indicated to reporters that he plans to have a series of conversations with Putin over the summer, and that a date is being finalized for a visit by the Russian leader to Bush’s Texas ranch. In keeping with the spirit of cooperation that the U.S. administration is now cultivating with Moscow, Bush also described friendly Russian-U.S. relations as “good for our nations–and good for the world.” In a remark that could get him in more hot water with critics in the United States–who believe he was overly effusive in praising the one-time KGB spy during the June 16 summit–Bush also spoke, however, of how Putin is “deeply concerned about extremism and what extremism can mean to Russia. As you know, I am too.” Bush’s remark was clearly an allusion to Russia’s bloody war in the Caucasus, which Moscow has tried to sell as a policing action against “extremists.”

The most concrete result of the June 6 telephone conversation, however, appeared to be Bush’s announcement that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and two U.S. cabinet officials–Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans–would be dispatched to Russia immediately following the Genoa G-7 meeting. “It’s a sign of the strength of U.S.-Russia relations, the importance that President Bush attaches to helping Russia to have a strong economy,” Fleischer said of the visit.

But despite the displays of public bonhomie between the two presidents, Putin in recent days has quietly continued the Kremlin’s effort to rally international opposition to the Bush administration’s missile defense plans. The effort was most obvious in the results of French President Jacques Chirac’s three-day visit to Russia. Although Putin and the French leader were unable to resolve their differences on several important issues, Putin was in a position to claim at least a partial diplomatic victory following the signing of a three-page joint Russian-French statement on strategic security. The statement did not specifically mention U.S. missile defense plans, but its references to the desirability of maintaining the ABM Treaty and global strategic equilibrium made clear what its target was (see the Monitor, July 5).

Of perhaps more importance, during his talks with Chirac, Putin also reportedly broached a Russian-drafted plan calling for the five established nuclear powers–the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China–to begin permanent negotiations aimed both at slashing nuclear arsenals and at preserving the ABM Treaty. The Russian proposal was fleshed out–albeit just a bit–and made official by the Foreign Ministry over the several days that followed Chirac’s departure. Among other things, the proposal reportedly calls for the formation of a standing council, designed to oversee global stability, that would seek a negotiated reduction in nuclear warheads possessed by the five countries from the current total of approximately 14,000 to 4,000 by the year 2009. In other obvious manifestations of Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans aside from the call to preserve the ABM accord, the proposal also warns of “the danger of a new arms race” and refers to “the possible militarization of space that threatens strategic stability.” According to Russian reports, Chirac had agreed to “study” the Russian proposal (AFP, July 4, 6-7; AP, July 6; Washington Post, July 7).