This past weekend’s Russian-U.S. summit meeting in Slovenia, which had been expected to produce few positive results, appeared instead to jumpstart long moribund relations between the two former Cold War rivals and, of perhaps more importance, to mark the beginning of a friendly personal relationship between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The unlikely outcome suggested that relations between Moscow and Washington have now come full circle since the Bush administration took office earlier this year. That is, where top Bush administration officials had earlier castigated Russia as a dangerous proliferator of sensitive military technologies and as a threat of sorts to U.S. security, rhetoric out of this weekend’s summit meeting suggested the two countries were embarking upon a path of partnership and cooperation in the area of security affairs. And whereas the Bush administration had also underscored its determination earlier to end the special relationship that obtained between Moscow and Washington even in the years that followed the end of the Cold War, its pointed cold-shouldering of Russia will now apparently give way to a policy whereby Moscow is once again singled out for special consultations with Washington aimed at jointly reshaping the world’s post-Cold War security environment.
This turnaround in Russian-U.S. relations had been anticipated in recent weeks by increasingly positive signals Washington sent to Moscow and by the Bush administration’s decision to schedule meetings between high-level Russian and U.S. government officials. But it was the personal interaction between Putin and Bush this past weekend that most clearly suggested that the beginnings of a full-fledged rapprochement between Russia and the United States might be in the making. Indeed, on a day when effusive praise for one another appeared to be the order of the day, Bush appeared particularly to go out of his way to offer personal compliments to the Russian leader. Bush spoke of having been able in his one hundred-minute meeting with Putin “to get a sense of his soul.” He described Putin as a “family man” and a “patriot,” and saluted the Russian leader as “an honest, straightforward man who loves his country,” and as a “remarkable leader” whom the United States can trust. He spoke of himself and Putin as “leaders of great powers,” a description that was surely much appreciated in Moscow.
Putin was a bit more restrained in his personal praise for Bush, though he did reportedly display warmth toward the U.S. president and spoke admiringly of his “large-scale approach” to world problems. Putin also said that he had been heartened by Bush remarks describing Russia as a part of Europe and a potential ally. “When a president of a great power says that he wants to see Russia as a partner, and maybe even as an ally, this is worth so much to us,” Putin told reporters. Moreover, in another example of Putin’s now well-known practice of tailoring his own personality to build rapport with other world leaders, he reportedly swapped folksy anecdotes with Bush and held an extensive conversation on his own with Bush in English–a first for a Soviet or Russian leader.
The substantive results of the June 16 meeting were perhaps not quite so impressive, but were nonetheless of potential significance. Of most importance, Bush and Putin will instruct their respective defense and foreign ministers to begin consultations on formulating a common approach for a new framework for international security. Details of the consultation effort were not made public, but the two sides will reportedly conduct a joint study of security threats, discuss cooperative energy projects and explore how American corporations might boost their investments in the Russian economy. American support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization is reportedly also on the table.
Bush and Putin also discussed U.S. missile defense plans, though whether they managed to narrow their differences is difficult to say. Putin went out of his way to reiterated once again Russian opposition to any move by Washington that would abrogate or undermine the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At the same time, however, U.S. officials were said to be heartened by Putin’s remark to the effect that both Russia and the United States bear “responsibility for building a new architecture of world security.” Washington interpreted that remark to mean that Moscow may be willing to deal on the missile defense issue. Bush spoke in similar terms, saying that the Russian president had demonstrated a surprising “receptivity” to missile defense–and particularly the need to conduct research that could violate the ABM treaty. “Nothing was rejected out of hand,” Bush was quoted as telling reporters. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that talks between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries on this particular subject would be launched “very quickly” (New York Times, Washington Post, The Observer, June 17; Reuters, June 16; AP, June 17; Moscow Times, June 18).
It remains to be seen, of course, to what extent the personal rapport established by Bush and Putin, not to mention the launching of bilateral consultations on key security issues, will help the two countries narrow their still deep differences over a wide range of security issues. Indeed, the events that immediately surrounded the June 16 talks in Slovenia only highlighted how fragile any Russian-U.S. rapprochement is likely to be. Bush, for example, traveled to Poland on June 15 where he articulated a vision of NATO enlargement–“from the Baltic to the Black Sea”–that is sure to raise hackles in Moscow. For his part, Putin arrived in Slovenia from Shanghai, where talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin both produced fresh criticism of U.S. missile defense plans and underlined continuing Russian efforts to improve relations with Beijing. Putin, moreover, later traveled from Slovenia to Belgrade (and then on to Kosovo), where he and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica harshly criticized the NATO peacekeeping operation there.
These points of friction between Washington and Moscow, like those related to Russian-Iranian defense and nuclear dealings, Russian support for Iraq, the war in Chechnya and the Kremlin’s assault on press freedoms, were seemingly swept under the rug by the U.S. side in Slovenia but must ultimately still be confronted. Indeed, the Bush administration may be falling into a pattern, not unlike that of the Clinton administration, by seeking some sort of “grand bargain” with Moscow whereby the United States attempts to trade a package of incentives for Russian acceptance of U.S. missile defense plans. The Clinton administration was criticized at home for soft pedaling U.S. concerns on these and other contentious issues in order to promote a broader policy of engagement with Moscow. The Bush administration may ultimately be vulnerable to some of the same sort of criticism, albeit with the different goal of clearing the way for missile defense deployment. In much the same way, Bush may also come to rue the effusiveness of the praise that he showered on Putin in Slovenia, much as Clinton administration officials did for praise lavished on former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and, in the early days of his presidency, for Vladimir Putin also.
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