A meeting of the mutually wary

Presidents Bush and Putin will meet for the first time Saturday in Slovenia.

Don't look for back-slapping bear hugs a la Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

The first meeting between US President Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin is being billed as more of a "High Noon" standoff than "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

The two relatively new leaders on the world stage - one a former Texas oilman and the other an ex-KGB agent - have had an adversarial relationship since Mr. Bush took office. They are expected to approach their encounter Saturday in Slovenia with very different views and agendas.

Mr. Putin is working to reassert Russia's role in the world, is critical of the US for arrogant unilateralism, and is deepening strategic ties with (and selling weapons to) nations such as China and Iran.

Bush wants to create a missile shield, one that requires a fundamental change in the cold-war security structure of nuclear deterrence. He also wants to treat Russia as a "normal" nation - not a former superpower with more than 40,000 nuclear warheads.

"The stakes are very high," says Michael McFaul, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who helped brief Bush on Russia before the trip. "This sets the tone and trajectory for US-Russia relations for the next several years."

The meeting is slated to last just two hours - less than half the time Bush spent meeting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on Tuesday. Don't expect instant personal chemistry, analysts say.

From the first days of the Bush presidency, US-Russia ties have been buffeted by a string of rhetorical clashes, perceived insults, and spy scandals that peaked with the US expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats accused of spying. Tit for tat, Russia is kicking out 50 American diplomats by mid-July. Bush aides vow combatively that "the president will look Putin in the eye." Kremlin officials rail against the Bush team's "aggressive style."

Though the tone of comments is beginning to ease, there has not been so much talk of a renewed "cold war" between Russia and the US since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago - an ironic result for a new US president who vows to discard "cold-war" thinking.

Mr. McFaul warns that Bush will err if he focuses too much on missile defense - the "first and foremost thing" on Bush's mind, he says - at the expense of bigger questions for Russia's future. Bush's goal should be "to make credible the idea that we, the US, think that Russia can still be part of the West, part of Europe.

"If you just start with missile defense, then you get a bunch of negotiations ... [and] we're back to the cold war," McFaul says. "If you start with the theme of integration and how Russia can be a part of it, it puts a whole different lens on it."

Bush sought to set the tone for the meeting this week, stating "Russia is not the enemy of the United States." At the same time, he defended his plans to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which is often seen as a pillar of global security. Still, despite vocal complaints from European leaders, he called the treaty a "relic of the past."

In Russia, there is already a widespread perception that the US - in an effort to justify missile defense - is determined to cast Russia as an enemy. A recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow found that 56 percent of Russians see NATO, which Bush wants to expand to Russia's borders, as an "aggressive bloc," up 18 points from 1997.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has written that tensions have grown so much since Bush took office that now the summit is "doomed to success" because "it can't be any other way."

There are detectable changes on both sides, as the relatively inexperienced leaders recognize that they need to work through their differences.

"Bush really wants a new beginning in Russian-American relations, but at the same time, he doesn't want to look like Clinton," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, an independent think tank in Moscow. "He would prefer a more businesslike approach."

"Putin wants a fresh start too, but with no vodka [Mr. Yeltsin's favorite drink], and no 'my friend Bill,' " says Mr. Nikonov. Despite their differences, he notes that both men have a similar conservative world-view, favor free markets, are strong on defense, and seem to revel in an independent foreign policy.

"There was a tendency to give Russia the back of our hand, to treat them with a kind of benign neglect," says Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser under Clinton. The recent "change in tone," he says, "derives not so much from a changed attitude about Russia, so much as a desire to get Russia to cooperate on missile defense."

A critical issue, which will require Bush to outline a "larger vision" of US-Russia ties, will be Russia's evolution. Failure here could lead to a disintegration of the country "to the point where its nuclear materials and other dangerous technology [are] seeping out into the world," Mr. Berger says. "And we can only really deal with that problem by cooperating with Russia."

Despite the official hardline, Russian analysts say that US plans are still vague, that the Kremlin knows that Bush is likely to proceed with missile defense plans, and that the US may walk away from the ABM treaty.

And it has other desires, too, which require a nod from the Bush team. "Russia realizes it can do nothing in Europe without the US," says Sergei Kolmakov, deputy head of the Center for Development of Parliamentarianism in Moscow. "The keys are in Washington, not in Brussels."

Still, Russia has been smarting at its apparent marginalization. Some say the Bush team is stuck in the past with cold- war thinking, and its toughness is a function of history.

"There are a lot of people in the Bush administration who are more familiar with the Soviet Union, and not modern Russia," says Nikolai Zubov, a foreign policy writer for Moscow's Kommersant newspaper. "Putin is learning faster and is eager to learn. Bush is not eager to learn, but he must come to terms with the fact that he's running a place a little bit bigger than Texas."

Others note that, after invariably starting off with the most acrimonious rhetoric, it was often Republican administrations, such as those of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush senior, that made breakthroughs.

"On the surface, for Russians it looks easier to cope with a Democratic administration," says Mr. Kolmakov. "But at the same time, practical results were often achieved when Republicans took charge."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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