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Bush-Putin: Talk and Smiles in Maine

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: July 3, 2007

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Two days of talks at the Bush family compound in Maine brought President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin together physically, but politically the two appear far from restoring the pragmatic U.S.-Russia relationship that took shape in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Talks Sunday evening and Monday included an expanded offer from Putin (LAT) to tackle the controversial question of European missile defense, and a pledge to continue pursuing limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions (Economist) through the UN Security Council.

White House and Russian officials worked hard to dampen any anticipation that the meetings might produce a major breakthrough on Iran, missile defense, or the status of Kosovo, another area of bilateral disagreement. The closest thing to progress came on missile defense. The United States wants to stage facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect Europe (and its troops based in the region) from missiles launched from, say, Iran. Russia views such a plan as a threat to its own missile deterrent and has broadened an earlier offer to tackle the issue jointly (Deutsche Welle). Some American officials worry such a system could prove unworkable for political reasons, or that Putin may simply be hoping to delay work on the proposed U.S. system until a new administration takes office (WashPost). As CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich tells Bernard Gwertzman, nuclear issues are, once again, front and center in the relationship.

In speeches recently, Putin made clear his displeasure with the course of U.S. foreign policy under Bush, citing slights (CSMonitor) dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union and proceeding through the Iraq War. The social nature of the Maine gathering, which included a lobster dinner and a boat ride with Bush’s father, seemed to underscore the U.S. desire to clear the air. The administration hinted at a more conciliatory position recently in a speech by David Kramer, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

Some experts say the Kennebunkport summit is meant primarily to cement the outgoing presidents’ legacies. “I really don’t think that either of them want, as part of their legacy, a trashed U.S.-Russian relationship,” (PDF) Andrew C. Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told reporters. But national interests being what they are, many remain skeptical Russia can be wooed. “It will be up to the next presidents of Russia and the United States to repair the relationship between their two countries,” author Richard Laurie suggests in the Moscow Times.

The gap between the two men, if not their nations, has grown considerable. Putin recently took swipes at the United States for dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilian populations in World War II (an earlier speech in May appeared to liken the United States to the Third Reich). Meanwhile, Putin has downplayed the extent of Stalin’s purges and accused Western academics of hyping Soviet-era atrocities to distort Russian history (GulfNews.com). Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst, writes in the Moscow Times that Putin sounded “like a caricature of the Soviet polemicists.” This new Backgrounder examines Russia’s uneasy attempts to come to grips with its Stalinist past and how they continue to shape relations with the West and its “near abroad.”

Some experts, like Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggest that Russian foreign policy is “adrift” and “lacking in strategic priorities.” Others, including Joshua Kurlantzick, suggest an alternative world order, with China and Russia at center, may be in the offing. Similarly, Azar Gat of Tel Aviv University, writing in Foreign Affairs, warns of a rise in authoritarian capitalist regimes that would pose a challenge to the liberal democratic global order. Or as Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation writes in the Washington Times, “The current elites define Russian strategic goals in a de-facto alliance with the Muslim world, particularly Iran and Syria, as well as with China [and] anti-status quo players such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.”

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