For US-Russia relations, a more tepid tête-à-tête

No more 'goo-goo eyes,' but plenty to talk about as Bush and Putin meet this weekend.

President Bush meets this weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the splendor of a refurbished St. Petersburg. But all the gilt and exterior pastels of a czar's palace won't be able to distract attention from the lost specialness and mutual disappointments of US-Russia relations under the two leaders.

Gone are the days of gazing into each others' souls and dancing the cotton-eyed Joe in Texas hill country. In this post-Iraq-war reality, neither side appears to feel the need to go too far in accommodating the other.

"It's a case of normalized diplomatic relations, where what you might call the goo-goo eyes of early courtship are replaced by dealing with the fact that there are differences," says William Kincade, an expert in US-Russia relations at the American University in Washington.

In the wake of a war that Russia opposed, the initial bonding between the two leaders will take a back seat to their respective national priorities. Bush, say analysts, now doubts Putin's loyalty. And Putin must deal with widespread disappointment at home that his accommodation of the Americans on a range of issues, from canceling the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty to the war on terrorism, has not produced much in the way of results for Russia.

"If the personal friendship factor helped spur the partnership in the beginning," says Viktor Kremeniuk, an expert at the Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, "the lack of it could now become a drag on relations."

Yet while no one expects any attention-grabbing breakthoughs from the leaders' meetings - either in St. Petersburg or in Évian, France, where the G-8 group of wealthy countries plus Russia will meet Sunday - that does not mean neither president has an agenda in his breast pocket.

At the top of the American list is Russia's relations with Iran, including its contract to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran, and concern that it is aiding an Iranian drive for nuclear weapons. The US also wants Moscow to pressure Tehran to take tougher action against suspected Al Qaeda operatives in isolated regions of Iran - something Russia says it is already doing.

Russia has no interest in Iran becoming a nuclear power, most analysts say, but at the same time they see little likelihood the Russians will pull the plug on a project the Iranians are paying for with cash. Russia has agreed to have the International Atomic Energy Agency look into concerns that Iran's nuclear program is designed for more than generating electric power, but otherwise it has shown no sign of backing down.

"Putin can't be seen on Iran or any other issue as the cat's paw doing America's work for it," says Melvin Goodman, a Russian affairs specialist at the National War College in Washington.

In addition to the Iran issue, the meetings may see Putin making some positive gestures to Bush in an attempt to return to what Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls the "status quo ante" of before the differences over Iraq.

IN THE past few weeks, Russia has made several overtures to the US that appear aimed at winning forgiveness for its opposition to the American war - "forgiveness" that White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said will define the new US approach to Russia.

Russia voted for the UN Security Council resolution last week, handing most responsibility for Iraq over to the US and its coalition allies. The Kremlin has also rushed parliamentary ratification of a treaty signed by Bush and Putin last year that mandates sweeping cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both countries. (The parliament had suspended ratification earlier this year to protest the US drive to war in Iraq.)

And last week, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov signaled that Russia is ready to start talking about cooperation on missile defense with the US, which, after two decades of Russian hostility to the very concept of "Star Wars," represents a major shift in Moscow's geostrategic posture.

In exchange, Russia would like to see American action to advance economic relations between the two countries. But despite Bush administration rhetoric, US moves have been few, and Russians in the meantime have realized that their economic future is more dependent on Germany and the European Union in general.

In any case, any signs of renewed cooperation will be tinged by the underlying Russian worry over American power - one factor in Russia's opposition to the Iraq war. "The Russians' concern about the unilateral exercise of American power in the world is strong, and it's not going to go away," says Mr. Kuchins.

"Russia wants to be a good partner of the US," agrees Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice-rector of the Russian Foreign Ministry's official Diplomatic Academy. "But we will not be a junior partner. We will always be an independent player."

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