Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was all set to return home from Washington with his gift for the boss–the White House’s agreement to an early summit between the country’s two presidents, set to take place in Slovenia next month–when along came the pesky press to spoil the triumphal mood. Not Russia’s opposition press, mind you–which has its own problems to worry about these days–but two German weeklies, Focus and Der Spiegel, which quoted from a diplomatic cable about a confidential talk between U.S. President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during their meeting in Washington last March. The cable, among other things, quoted Schroeder agreeing with Bush that Russia should get no new financial aid “as long as vast sums are being spirited abroad” and questioning whether President Vladimir Putin had the power to “assert himself against the elites shaped during the Soviet era.” Bush, for his part, was quoted as saying that he did not see Russia as an enemy but was concerned about Putin’s attitude toward the press and continued Russian arms deliveries to Iran. More would have to be known about the Russian president’s policies and goals before making “further economic assistance available,” the cable quoted the U.S. president saying.

All in all, the leak amounted to something of a cold shower for the Russian leader on the eve of his first one-on-one with his American counterpart, and Putin reacted in time-honored fashion, denying the report’s authenticity and denouncing it as a “provocation” aimed at destroying “the positive trend in relations between Russia and the EU and between Russia and certain members of the EU.” Never mind that German publications don’t make a habit of fabricating stories involving political leaders (at least since 1983, when Stern magazine published the forged Hitler diaries).

Besides, the doubts expressed by the U.S. and German leaders concerning foreign aid to Russia can hardly have come as a shock to Putin, given that Bush has publicly expressed such views on more than one occasion and that the German government has lately been more interested in getting Russia to pay off some of its $19 billion debt than in adding to the total. Nor was it news to Putin that Russia’s creditors are less than thrilled by the fact that capital continues to flee the country en masse, despite Russia’s oil-fuelled economic recovery. Just last month, the Russian president’s own economic development and trade minister, German Gref, revised last year’s figures for legal and illegal capital flight upward to $28 billion, as compared with $24 billion in 1999.