Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 118

Russian press coverage of this past weekend’s Russian-U.S. summit in Slovenia has had much in common with Western treatment of the event. In general, both agree that the meeting’s results exceeded expectations, particularly with regard to the personal rapport established between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; both have also said that the talks marked a potentially significant turn for the better in terms of broader Russian-American relations, with some Russian sources suggesting that the Ljubljana summit had even helped to avert a “mini-Cold War” between Washington and Moscow. Like their Western counterparts, however, many Russian news sources also pointed to the fact that little of substance had actually been addressed in Slovenia, and that long and probably difficult work still lies ahead if the United States and Russia are to narrow their differences on a host of international and bilateral issues.

While much Western reportage of the summit focused on the unexpectedly effusive praise Bush showered on Putin and on hints that Moscow might now be inclined to respond more flexibly to U.S. missile defense plans, a number of Russian reports devoted attention instead to an angle that was not much in evidence in American reporting of the summit: namely, that Putin had emerged from the one-hundred-minute meeting in some sense the diplomatic victor. An editorial published in the English-language Moscow Times put it most succinctly when it said that this summit was “always intended to be more symbolic than substantive,” and that on this basis Putin had “won” the encounter “by knockout.” Indeed, the newspaper argued that Putin had set the stage for his “victory” with a “successful, orderly and businesslike Central Asian summit in Shanghai.” In contrast (and skipping over Bush’s successful June 15 visit to Warsaw), the newspaper said that the U.S. president had arrived in Slovenia “still shaking from the difficult reception he received [at the European Union summit] in Gothenburg.” The Russian newspaper also puzzled over Bush’s claim to have gotten a sense of Putin’s “soul” during the summit, saying that “this came as quite a surprise to those of us who have been trying to figure Putin out ever since he emerged on the national stage.”

Other Russian sources were not so direct in imputing a diplomatic victory to Putin in Ljubljana, but several did suggest that the career KGB official had outperformed Bush during their encounter. Apparently basing their assessments on leaks from Kremlin sources, they claimed that Putin was better versed on the security issues under discussion than Bush and that, according to one report, the Russian president had “stunned the Americans with his knowledge of all relevant details.” Russian sources suggested that Putin’s unexpected expertise had led the American side to limit the amount of time Bush spent alone with Putin, and that Moscow had only reluctantly agreed to have Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo (a nonplayer in Russian foreign policymaking) sit in with Putin after the Americans insisted that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice accompany Bush. In much the same vein, Russian sources said that it was Putin who had directed the discussions that ultimately resulted in a Russian-U.S. agreement to jointly assess the post-Cold War security environment. Another Russian report suggested that, while Moscow “will never manage to cancel [U.S.] missile defense,” Putin’s mastery during the summit enabled Russia “to gain time in order to barter over it.”

Fawning over Putin is, of course, nothing new for the Russian media. But some Russian sources also noted the weak hand that Putin had to play at the summit and the fact that success in Slovenia was “more important for Russia than for the United States simply because Moscow has more at stake” and because “Russia cannot afford the luxury of worsening relations with the U.S.” Against this background, Russian sources also attached considerable importance to the fact that Bush had invited Putin to visit at his Texas ranch, and that the visit could take place as early as this fall. The newspaper Izvestia, meanwhile, noted that the absence of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov at the summit (the foreign ministers of the two countries were in Ljubljana) underscored the fact that detailed discussion of key defense issues was not on the agenda. That fit in with the view of Russian observers that the weekend summit, whatever its importance in symbolic terms, was only the start of what is likely to be a long process of negotiation on missile defense and other contentious issues (Reuters, AFP, June 18; Moscow Times, June 18-19; Izvestia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Novye Izvestia, June 19).