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Soul-Searching in Kennebunkport

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: July 2, 2007


Two days of talks got underway amid low expectations for any real meeting of the minds of Presidents Bush and Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine. It’s been a rough ride for the two leaders, both of whom came to power as unknown entities unversed in diplomatic formalities. Though plenty of serious issues beckon, the informal talks - including the requisite speedboat ride with Bush and his father - showed as little more than a summer get together at first glance (BBC). Early reports speak of low expectations and little of diplomatic substance beyond polite dinner conversation (NYTimes).

Not long after Bush took office in 2001, he gazed into his Russian counterpart’s soul and famously liked what he saw. But relations deteriorated rapidly after Russia opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. Since then, what Moscow viewed as Washington’s meddling in elections in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 irked the Kremlin. The latest sore spot to emerge is the U.S. plan to stage a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Given the litany of grievances, experts are not optimistic anything of substance will emerge out of the Kennebunkport meeting. Putin’s counteroffer to stage a missile system in Azerbaijan as opposed to Poland and the Czech Republic drew a lukewarm reaction from U.S. defense officials. Bush will also try to enlist Putin’s support for stricter sanctions against Iran, but Steven Pifer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies is doubtful (PDF) because “the Russians have a very different set of geopolitical and economic interests in Iran.” Finally, on Kosovo the two sides have also grown further apart, as the Kremlin digs in its heels in opposition to a UN Security Council resolution (AP) that offers phased-in independence for the Serbian province. “Domestically [Putin] cannot make a concession on Kosovo for fear of appearing weak and inconsistent,” ( writes analyst Vladimir Frolov.

With all this in mind, 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.

If this is the goal, an ongoing series of sharp comments by the Russian president won’t help. 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 ( 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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