Summit in Russia: a turning point

Bush and Putin sign arms treaty, clearing way for era of new issues.

It's being called the last summit of its kind.

When Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin sign a nuclear weapons treaty today in Moscow, they will walk in the steps of their predecessors, making arms control the centerpiece of their meetings.

But the White House views the treaty almost as a sideshow – an item under "old business" to be checked off in order to get to more urgent "new business" and, in the process, to a far more "normal" relationship with Moscow.

"Perhaps it's good news that the time of historic agreements in US-Russia relations [is] over. Now we can start doing important things," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center.

By "important things," Mr. Simes means counter-terrorism efforts, trade, and energy. To that, the administration would add preventing the production of weapons of mass destruction in the "axis of evil" triumverate, as well as continued integration of Russia with the West.

"We're all hopeful that this is actually the last (time) that an arms reduction treaty gets quite the attention that this one has gotten. That really, what this should be is ... a normal relationship," says Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor – and a Soviet expert in the former Bush administration.

What's perhaps remarkable about this summit is not its hyped billing as the end of the cold war – that was marked by the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev and subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union. Rather, it's the evolution of a White House that began openly clashing with the Russians, but whose commander in chief now playfully refers to Mr. Putin as "Pootie-Poot" (though not to his face).

The September terrorist attacks helped to warm up this relationship enormously, analysts say, with Moscow grateful to Washington for eliminating Afghanistan's Taliban and the US thankful for Russia's support in the war effort, including its blessing for American military bases in sensitive Central Asia.

But the more fundamental reason for the turnabout, observers say, is Russia's continued drive westward – toward membership in the World Trade Organization, and, as of next Tuesday, as a new party at the NATO table (though on limited subjects, and minus veto power). At the same time, it's been cleaning house economically, averaging a 6.5 percent economic growth rate over the past three years.

"Let's give credit to the Russians here, as well," says Ms. Rice. "A lot has happened in this relationship in a very short period of time."

And there's more to come, though interestingly, much of it is still focused on security.

The Americans have made it clear that their top two issues with Russia are the war on terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. On the terrorism front, they see mostly eye-to-eye. But with two of the "evil axis" players – Iran and Iraq – the diplomacy is rough going because of Russian economic ties to both countries.

Still, some analysts believe that the US and Russia will eventually work things out.

The Russian position on Iraq has "changed considerably," says Simes. "As long as Russian financial interests are taken into account ... Russia can live with" a US attack on Iraq, he says.

Iran is trickier. Russia views Iran as a good regional citizen and is loath to cancel its deal to help Iran build nuclear power plants – a deal the US claims could aid Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Additionally, Washington complains about Russian conventional-arms exports to Iran, which it says are intended for use against American forces.

Even here, however, observers see some room for cooperation. Rose Gottemoeller, a non-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that top US and Russian energy officials have been having productive talks. One idea that might be workable, she says, is a just-in-time inventory system in which Russia would supply Iran fuel for its energy plants at the last minute, and remove spent fuel immediately.

In this new "normal" relationship, energy and the economy rank a close second behind security issues. Russia produces 10 percent of the world's oil, and the two leaders reportedly may announce an "energy security" deal in which Russia supplies more oil to the US. Bush also may declare Russia a "market economy" – helping clear the way for its membership in the WTO. It's trade – not aid – that can most assist the Russian economy, he maintains.

While this broader relationship looks promising, Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford University, sees a big black cloud on the horizon. It's not the trade disputes over steel and chicken, or even the alarming anti-Americanism in Russian institutions and the elite. Neither is it the tension in a relationship where Russia is now the obvious junior partner. "My No. 1 worry is about democracy," he says.

Whether it's Putin's heavy-handedness with the media, human rights abuses in Chechnya, or election manipulation, the trend is away from democracy, McFaul warns. If that fails – and he gives it a 30 percent chance of failure – then so does the "new normal" between two erstwhile enemies.

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